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Food Deserts: Where They Are and How To Survive

By September 3, 2015July 13th, 2023Community
A shopping cart in a literal desert

The word “desert” conjures up images of sweeping sand dunes, blazing sun, and the occasional palm tree. It’s a barren, desolate place, and does not have the natural resources most living things need to survive.

It’s fitting then that nutritionists and the media have begun using the term “food desert” to apply to places that perhaps have less sand and more high-rises, but are lacking an important resource its inhabitants need — healthy food.

According to Janelle Ketchum, a Philadelphia nutritionist and founder of Nutrition Unlimited, food deserts are areas that simply don’t have the fresh produce, meats, whole grains, and other important dietary ingredients that people need to receive proper nutrition. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that there are an estimated 23.5 million people who live in areas that lack access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

“If you’re living in an area that has no supermarkets or grocery stores close by (within one mile in an urban area or ten miles in a rural area), and you are relying on corner stores or convenience stores for your grocery items, you’re in a food desert,” says Ketchum.

How Do I Know if I Live in a Food Desert?

If you’re curious whether or not your neighborhood meets the official term guidelines, you can check the USDA-ERS Food Desert Locator and get information about your area’s fresh food and water access. In the Philadelphia five-county area, neighborhoods like Chester, Tinicum Township, West Oak Lane, Norristown, and Bristol are considered food deserts.

And, like spending time in a real desert without the proper resources, living in areas that lack access to fresh produce and healthy food choices can lead to serious health consequences.

“Living in a food desert could negatively affect an individual’s overall diet and health if they rely on fast food and convenience stores for most meals and have limited consumption of healthy fresh foods due to high cost or unavailability,” explains Ketchum. “It could put them at risk for preventable chronic illnesses, such as Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension.”

If you live in a food desert, Ketchum says there is hope — and options. One of your best defenses for proper nutrition is education. A local registered dietitian can provide you with information about cooking affordably and point you to food resources in your area. Find out how nutritional counseling can help healthy eating and weight loss. In fact, many Independence Blue Cross health care plans include up to six visits with a registered dietitian at no cost.

Bringing Healthy Choices to Your Community

Look for the few markets and grocery stores in your area that stock fresh foods and healthy options, and encourage them to bring in more healthy food choices. One such store in the Philadelphia area is Brown’s Super Stores, which has been expanding its effort to bring fresh foods to areas in Philadelphia that lack these resources.

Once you know the best places to shop for fresh foods in your area and how to select the best health options for you, start planning out your meals. Ketchum suggests following these meal-planning steps when getting ready for your weekly grocery-shopping trip.

  1. Create a healthy eating meal plan.
  2. Always use a shopping list (and avoid shopping for food when hungry).
  3. Shop affordably and use recipes/ingredients that are low-cost and nutritious. Rely on the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to learn more about eating healthier and economically, and use the SNAP recipe finder for easy, healthy meal ideas.

While access to fresher, healthier food may be harder to come by when you reside in a food desert, it’s not impossible. Look into these local healthy food programs, which are dedicated to bringing healthy and fresh meals to Philadelphians, no matter their neighborhood.

You may also be interested in the following resources:


IBX Insights Team

The IBX Insights Team is here to provide tips on using your health insurance and living a healthy life.