‘Food insecurity’ is when one does not consistently have access to enough food to maintain a healthy lifestyle (DHSS). ‘Food deserts’ are geographic regions that are low-access areas to healthy and affordable foods as determined by distance to the nearest supermarket and car ownership. Please read our Science Note Food Insecurity & Deserts to learn more about these topics.
In MO from 2010-2016, there was a 14% decrease in the low supermarket access population (reinvestment fund 2018). Easy access to high-quality grocery stores decreases food insecurity (Mayer 2014). However, supermarkets have historically resisted moving into food deserts due to facility placement criteria such as foot traffic, perception of crime, and low median household incomes. One study in Dallas, TX demonstrates that by following these criteria, supermarkets are not being established in areas where there is market demand.
Grocery stores that tried to open in food deserts and failed attributed the failure to a lack of experience in the industry, poor marketing and sales, and not enough customers. This indicates that identifying a food desert and putting a grocery store there is not enough to solve the issue of food deserts (Engler-Stringer 2019).
Access to public transportation decreases food insecurity among poor Black Americans, but not among poor White Americans. Likely because poor White Americans are more likely to own a car compared to poor Black Americans (Baek 2013). In Madison, WI the areas considered a food desert decreased by 45% when taking the bus system into account (Omri 2013).
Figure 1. Need is determined by how many residents are eligible for food assistance compared to the state average. Performance is determined by how many eligible residents participate in the programs and how many pounds of food are distributed to low-income families. Figure from the MO Hunger Atlas 2019.
Government assistance is one method to help families afford groceries. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), free school lunches, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) decreases food insecurity among adults and children (Zhang 2021, Ralston 2017, Rose 1998). In MO, 1 in 10 households participate in SNAP (US Census Bureau 2021).
However, not everyone who is eligible for these programs participates. Of the 39 counties in Missouri who have a high need for food assistance, as determined by the percentage of residents eligible for food assistance programs, a third have low participation in these programs (Figure 1, MO Hunger Atlas 2019).
One study of Leon County, FL found that 95% of supermarkets accepted SNAP benefits while only about 40% of all other types of stores accepted SNAP benefits (Rigby 2012).
Food banks and food pantries are non-profit organizations that provide free food to the community. Food banks are large warehouses that work with farmers, businesses, and host food drives to gather groceries and act as distribution centers for food pantries. Food pantries distribute donated food to individuals in the community (Feeding America 2019). About a third of food insecure households reported using a food pantry in 2020 (USDA 2021). However, relying on donations means food pantries do not consistently have enough nutritiously adequate food such as fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat (Bazerghi 2016).