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Broadband and Food Deserts

Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on February 2, 2024
Research Highlights

Rural areas in Missouri are more likely to be underserved in broadband and grocery retailer availability.

Broadband availability is associated with improved economic development and quality of life markers.

Rural areas are less likely to be in the delivery zones of online grocery retailers.

Areas without reliable internet access are also more likely to have limited access to grocery stores.

The Missouri Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program focuses on providing improved high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved MO communities, defined as an area with service of less than 25 Mbps downstream / 3 Mbps upstream and of 100 Mbps / 20 Mbps service, respectively (Figure 1).

  • Broadband access is closely linked to population density and income level, meaning that rural, low-income regions typically have the least access.

In MO, underserved communities of low population density also have limited access to grocery stores (USDA 2023).

  • A food desert is defined as a metropolitan area more than 0.5 miles away from a grocery store or a rural area that is more than 10 miles away (USDA 2023).

Almost 1 in 10 MO counties have one or fewer grocery retailers, and three MO counties do not have a single grocery store (MU Extension 2023).

Figure 1. Left: Map of broadband availability in MO counties, shown as the percentage of households within the county with provider reported internet speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps by wired or licensed fixed wireless technology. Data from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2023. Right: Map of the number of food delivery options available throughout MO. Figure provided by Brookings (George 2022).


High speed internet availability is linked to an area’s economic growth.

Broadband availability is linked to economic development through better business performance, higher home values, and higher worker productivity. Broadband availability improves quality of life for residents through higher education outcomes, health outcomes, and social and entertainment options (Valentín-Sívico 2023, Conroy 2021).

  • Broadband availability spurs entrepreneurship. New rural businesses are 60-101% more likely to open in zip codes with broadband availability (Kim 2016).
  • Between 2001-2010, low broadband adoption led to a decline in the total number of businesses and employment numbers in rural areas, while areas with high adoption experienced higher growth in employment and income  (Whitacre 2014, Lehr 2006).


Online food delivery brings grocery options to metro areas but does not serve most rural areas.

The use of digital food services, including grocery, meal, and meal kit delivery has risen since 2019 (George 2022). For some communities, digital food services reduce the importance of physical proximity to food access (George 2021).

A report on the delivery zones of four leading food delivery services found these zones reach 93% of the U.S. population, including most Americans living in traditionally defined “food deserts” (George 2022). However, of the people living outside of delivery zones, the majority live in rural areas. Mapping delivery zones shows areas of low population density, including large areas of rural MO, are unreachable by food delivery services (Figure 1).

In 2020, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) dollars were made usable for digital food ordering through the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot; an evaluation of this national program indicates that it decreased food insecurity among low-income adults by 2 percentage points (Jones 2023).

  • In 2019, 61% of SNAP households nationally in rural food deserts did not have access to online food delivery services (Brandt 2019).

For more information on the topics discussed in this note, read our Science Notes Wireless Internet Speeds, Broadband Availability Mapping, Broadband Impacts, Broadband and Telemedicine, Online Education, and Food Insecurity and Deserts.



Brandt EJ, Silvestri DM, Mande JR, Holland ML, & Ross JS (2019) Availability of Grocery Delivery to Food Deserts in States Participating in the Online Purchase Pilot. JAMA Network Open, 2(12), e1916444. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.16444

Conroy T, Deller S, Kures M, Low S, Glazer J, Huyke G, & Stark C (2021) Broadband and the Wisconsin Economy. University of Wisconsin Extension. https://economicdevelopment.extension.wisc.edu/files/2021/06/2021-01-07-Broadband-Report.pdf

FCC (2023) National Broadband Map. FCC. https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/location-summary/fixed?version=jun2023&zoom=6.22&vlon=-93.116540&vlat=38.366122&br=r&speed=100_20&tech=1_2_3_7

George C, Tomer A (2021) Beyond ‘food deserts’: America needs a new approach to mapping food insecurity. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/beyond-food-deserts-america-needs-a-new-approach-to-mapping-food-insecurity/

George C, Tomer A (2022) Delivering to deserts: New data reveals the geography of digital access to food in the U.S. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/delivering-to-deserts-new-data-reveals-the-geography-of-digital-access-to-food-in-the-us/

Jones K, Leschewski A, Jones J, & Melo G (2023) The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Online Purchasing Pilot’s impact on food insufficiency. Food Policy, 121, 102538. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306919223001367

Kim Y & Orazem PF (2017) Broadband internet and new firm location decisions in rural areas. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 99(1), 285–302. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1093/ajae/aaw082

Lehr WH, Osorio CA, Gillett SE, & Sirbu MA (2006) Measuring Broadband’s Economic Impact. https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/102779

MU Extension (2023) Food Access and Health. http://muext.us/MissouriEconomyIndicators

USDA Economic Research Service (2023) Food Access Research Atlas. USDA. https://gisportal.ers.usda.gov/portal/apps/experiencebuilder/experience/?id=a53ebd7396cd4ac3a3ed09137676fd40&page=Introduction

Valentín-Sívico J, Canfield C, Low S, Gollrick C (2023) Evaluating the impact of broadband access and internet use in a small underserved rural community. Telecommunications Policy, 47(4), 102499. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308596123000101

Whitacre B, Gallardo R, & Strover S (2014) Broadbands contribution to economic growth in rural areas: Moving towards a causal relationship. Telecommunications Policy, 38(11), 1011–1023. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308596114000949

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