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Food Insecurity and Deserts

Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on November 6, 2023
Research Highlights

Most food insecure households consist of families, low-income households, and people of color.

Lack of access to a car is disproportionately high among Black and low-income Missourians.

Low-income residents are twice as likely to live in a low supermarket access area compared to high-income residents.

1 in 8 Missourians are food insecure. 

To maintain a healthy diet, people need food that is nutritious, affordable, and accessible. 

  • Nutritious diets consist of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, protein and oils, with limited intake of added sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol (USDA 2020). 
  • The minimum cost of groceries to maintain a nutritious diet is $250-$300 / month for a single adult (USDA 2023). 
  • A food desert is a low-access area more than 0.5 miles away from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas (USDA 2019).  

‘Food insecurity’ is when one does not consistently have access to enough food to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This spans from reduced quality and variety of diet (eating ramen for every meal, diluting formula) to reducing food intake (skipping meals so children have enough food; DHSS). 

Families with children, single parents, adults who live alone, are Black or Hispanic, or have incomes below 185% of the federal poverty threshold are more likely to be food insecure (USDA 2021). Food insecurity impacts physical health (increased blood pressure, weight, inflammation) and mental health (increased risk of depression, chronic stress; Pourmotabbed 2020; Johnson 2018; Camp 2015). 

About 12% of Missouri households are food insecure (USDA 2021). Southeast Missouri is particularly impacted by food insecurity with at least 15% of residents experiencing food insecurity in most counties (Missouri Hunger Atlas 2019). 


Figure 1. People who are low-income, live in a food desert, or are people of color are more likely to experience food insecurity (USDA 2021). Additionally, people of color and people who are low-income are more likely to live in a food desert (reinvestment fund 2018). 

Major predictors of food deserts are income and race. 

‘Food deserts’ are geographic regions that have low access to healthy and affordable foods. Living in a food desert does not cause food insecurity, but it can exacerbate it.  Food deserts have the greatest impact on those who have barriers such as income and transportation (Figure 1).      

  • For example, in rural WV town, there were no increased trips to the closest supermarket 11 miles away after the local grocery store closed. Instead, more community members started using the food pantry. Households reported relying on the food pantry for fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat that they would have otherwise bought at the grocery store (Miller 2016).  
  • Food insecure households that do not have access to a car consume fewer fresh fruits and vegetables (Strome 2016). 

People living in food deserts travel farther to grocery stores. Food stores in food deserts such as gas stations, dollar stores, or convenience stores are unlikely to have healthy food options. Additionally, any healthy options are usually lower quality and more expensive than unhealthy options (Pike 2017). Because food is less expensive at supermarkets, people who shop at stores in food deserts pay more for their food and have less variety (Walker 2010). Additionally, food deserts are associated with higher colorectal cancer mortality, heart disease, and cardiovascular hospitalization (Masdor 2022).  

 In 2015, 1 in 6 Missourians lived in a food desert (USDA 2019).  

  • In MO, 45% of residents in a food desert with limited car access are in low-income areas.  
  • Low-income populations are twice as likely to also be food desert residents (reinvestment fund 2018).  

In MO, people of color make up 1 in 5 of the total population and 1 in 3 of the food desert population (reinvestment fund 2018).  

  • Black communities have fewer supermarkets nearby and more fast-food restaurants and bars compared to white communities (Walker 2010).  
  • In MO, 1 in 5 Black households do not have a vehicle compared to 1 in 20 White households (National Equity Atlas 2020). Of the 6% of Missourians who do not own a car almost half are Black (US Census 2021). 

There are several strategies to decrease food insecurity and increase food access. 

In MO, food-insecure households have decreased from 17% to 12% from 2011 to 2021 (USDA 2022). Easy access to fruits and vegetables, high-quality grocery stores, and food benefits programs decrease food insecurity (Mayer 2014).   

Strategy 1. More access to supermarkets and grocery stores  

Strategy 2. Fresh fruits and vegetables in the community  

Strategy 3. Financial assistance for groceries 

Read our Science Note Combatting Food Insecurity to learn more about these strategies. 


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