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Food Insecurity and Deserts

Written by Dr. Sarah Anderson
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. 


Camp, Nadine L. MSN, APRN, CPNP. Food insecurity and food deserts. The Nurse Practitioner 40(8):p 32-36, August 15, 2015. DOI: 10.1097/01.NPR.0000453644.36533.3a

Economic Research Service. (2023, October). Interactive Charts and Highlights Food Security in the U.S. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-u-s/interactive-charts-and-highlights/#States

Economic Research Service. (2023, October). Key Statistics and Graphics Food Security in the U.S. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-u-s/key-statistics-graphics/

Economic Research Service USDA. (2019). Introduction to the Food Access Research Atlas. Retrieved from US Department of Agriculture: https://gisportal.ers.usda.gov/portal/apps/experiencebuilder/experience/?id=a53ebd7396cd4ac3a3ed09137676fd40

Economic Research Service USDA. (2019, September). State Level Estimates of Low Income and Low Access Populations. Retrieved from USDA: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/state-level-estimates-of-low-income-and-low-access-populations/

Johnson, A. D., & Markowitz, A. J. (2018). Food Insecurity and Family Well-Being Outcomes among Households with Young Children. The Journal of pediatrics196, 275–282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.01.026

Mayer, V., Hillier, A., Bachhuber, A., & Long, J. (2014). Food Insecurity, Neighborhood Food Access, and Food Assistance in Philadelphia. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 1087-1097.

Miller, W. C., Rogalla, D., Spencer, D., Zia, N., Griffith, B. N., & Heinsberg, H. B. (2016). Community adaptations to an impending food desert in rural Appalachia, USA. Rural and remote health16(4), 3901.

Missouri Hunger Atlas. (2019). % Individuals Food Insecure. Retrieved from Missouri Hunger Atlas: https://mohungeratlas.org/maps/2019/MHA-2019-food-insecure.jpg

National Equity Atlas. (2020). Car Access. Retrieved from National Equity Atlas: https://nationalequityatlas.org/indicators/Car_access?geo=02000000000029000&breakdown=by-race-ethnicity

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion DHSS. (n.d.). Food Insecurity. Retrieved from Department of Health and Senior Services: https://health.gov/healthypeople/priority-areas/social-determinants-health/literature-summaries/food-insecurity

Pike SN, Trapl ES, Clark JK, Rouse CD, Bell BA, Sehgal AR, et al. Examining the Food Retail Choice Context in Urban Food Deserts, Ohio, 2015. Prev Chronic Dis 2017;14:160408. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd14.160408

Pourmotabbed, A., Moradi, S., Babaei, A., Ghavami, A., Mohammadi, H., Jalili, C., Symonds, M. E., & Miraghajani, M. (2020). Food insecurity and mental health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Health Nutrition, 23(10), 1778-1790. https://doi.org/10.1017/S136898001900435X

Masdor, N. A., Mohammed Nawi, A., Hod, R., Wong, Z., Makpol, S., & Chin, S. (2022). The Link between Food Environment and Colorectal Cancer: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 14(19), 3954. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14193954

Reinvestment Fund. (2018, July). Assessing Place-Based Access to Healthy Food: The Limited Supermaket Access (LSA) Analysis. Retrieved from Reinvestment Fund: https://www.reinvestment.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/LSA_2018_Report_web.pdf

Strome, S., Johns, T., Scicchitano, M. J., & Shelnutt, K. (2016). Elements of Access: The Effects of Food Outlet Proximity, Transportation, and Realized Access on Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Food Deserts. International quarterly of community health education37(1), 61–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272684X16685252

United States Census Bureau. (2022). DP04 Selected Houding Characteristics. Retrieved from United States Census Bureau: https://data.census.gov/table?q=DP04&g=040XX00US29

USDA. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 - Executive Summary. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agency: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/DGA_2020-2025_ExecutiveSummary_English.pdf

USDA. (2023, March). Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Three Levels, U.S. Average, March 2023 . Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/media/file/CostofFoodMar2023LowModLib.pdf

Walker, R. E., Keane, C. R., & Burke, J. G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & Place, 16(5), 876-884. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.04.013

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