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Strategies to Combat Food Insecurity

Written by Dr. Madeleine Roberts
Published on November 2, 2023
Research Highlights

Food deserts need to be vetted to determine if they can support a supermarket.

Farmers markets and urban agriculture can reduce food insecurity.

Supermarkets are more likely to accept SNAP benefits compared to other kinds of food stores.

‘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. 

Increased access to supermarkets and grocery stores decreases food insecurity.  

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.  

  • In Dallas, TX there are 5 census tracts that have food-at-home expenditures of $17 million or higher and 43 census tracts that have food-at-home expenditures between $12 million and $17 million with no supermarkets (Ricon 2020). Food-at-home expenditure is the amount of money a census tract spends on groceries given the aggregate income of the households, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, population density, population growth over four years, and the percent of foreign-born residents in the census tract. 

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. 

Cost is a major factor for low-income families when accessing food 

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).  

  • Incentive programs, such as providing discounts for fresh food and vegetables, increases the amount of these foods consumed by SNAP participants (USDA 2023; Karpyn 2019). 

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).  

  • Individuals who are less likely to apply for SNAP even when eligible are the elderly, Hispanic, those who work multiple jobs, those who work non-traditional hours, and immigrants. 
  • Strategies to increase participation include increasing outreach about the program, increasing availability of the program’s managing office, and simplifying the application and recertification process (Pinfard 2016; Nicoll 2015). 

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). 

  • About half of the food deserts in NC had access to a dollar store that participates in SNAP. However, dollar stores do not sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Some offer frozen fruit and vegetables and frozen meat, and most stores offer shelf stable food such as dried beans and brown rice (Racine 2016).  

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). 


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