Managing nutrition in food deserts

Managing nutrition in food deserts can be a challenge, but there are some strategies that can help.

Food deserts are a growing issue in many communities, particularly in low-income urban areas and rural areas, where access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food is limited. The lack of nutritious food options can lead to poor dietary choices and negative health outcomes.

The United States has now hit the worst levels of hunger in decades. As of 2022, 54 million Americans live in food deserts. In this article, we will explore the challenges of managing nutrition in food deserts, as well as strategies for making the most of the limited food options available.

What is a food desert?

A food desert is an area where residents have limited access to nutritious food, either due to poverty or due to the distance of food stores to their homes.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert is an area with the following characteristics: 

  • Very large or very small population
  • Low-income families
  • High levels of unemployment
  • Limited access to transportation
  • Lack of food sources, like large grocery stores and supermarkets

How can living in a food desert affect nutrition?

Living in a food desert can have a significant impact on nutrition. People who lack access to affordable, healthy food options may have easier access to processed foods high in calories, sugar, and unhealthy fats.

As a result, a million people or more living in food deserts may be more likely to consume a diet that is high in calories and low in essential nutrients. Some of the health effects of living in a food desert include:

  • Higher rate of obesity
  • Increased cases of diabetes
  • Other weight-related conditions

In addition, living in a food desert may also affect the overall diet quality and variety of people’s food choices. Limited access to healthy foods may lead to more monotonous meals that lack diversity in terms of nutrients, flavors, and textures.

How can people manage nutrition in food deserts?

Managing nutrition in a food desert can be a challenge, but it is possible with careful planning and effort. However, there are some strategies that can help make the most of the limited food options available.

Plan ahead

When you know when you’ll have access to healthy food options, plan your meals in advance to make sure you’re getting healthful food items. Make a list of meals or ingredients that you know are packed with a variety of nutrients. This can help you avoid unhealthy processed foods when you’re short on time or options.

Shop smart

When you do have access to fresh food, make the most of it by choosing nutrient-dense options, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Look for deals or discounts on healthy foods, and compare prices at different stores if possible.

If you won’t be able to go to other stores to compare prices, choose the ones that provide the best deal while providing you and your family with the nutrients you need. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more affordable and accessible when they’re in season.

Consider non-traditional food sources

Depending on where you live, there may be local food sources that can provide fresh produce and other healthy options, such as:

  • Community garden or co-op
  • Community pantry
  • Farmers’ market
  • Affordable grocery stores
  • Affordable markets
  • Backyard and community gardens
  • Food assistance programs
  • Food buying clubs

Supplement with vitamins

If you’re unable to get all the nutrients you need from your diet, consider taking a multivitamin or other dietary supplement to help fill in the gaps. However, supplements can be quite expensive and not all households can afford them.

Some government-funded programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, provide vouchers or benefits that can be used to purchase food, including some supplements. However, the availability of these programs and the specific supplements covered may vary by state and location.

Learn to cook

Knowing how to cook can be a valuable skill in food deserts, as it allows you to make the most of the ingredients you have on hand. In addition, it also helps you avoid buying meals from fast food restaurants.

Look for healthy recipes online or in cookbooks and experiment with different flavors and ingredients to keep meals interesting and varied. You may want to consider recipes that require just a few ingredients.

If you’re familiar with the most common food items available near you, research or concoct recipes that make use of them. By doing so, you won’t have to search or travel far to acquire the ingredients you need. 

Advocate for change

Food deserts are a systemic issue that requires larger-scale solutions, such as:

  • increased investment in local food infrastructure
  • public transportation to grocery stores
  • policies that promote healthy food access

Consider getting involved in local advocacy efforts to help bring about change in your community.

Final thoughts

If you live in a food desert where fresh, healthy food is hard to find, it can be challenging to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet. However, with some planning and creativity, it’s still possible to manage your nutrition. 

Remember, it could be a difficult process, but it’s possible. By being proactive and seeking out available resources, you can still maintain the health and nutrition of your family and prevent food insecurity.

If you’re interested in helping address food deserts, there are several organizations and initiatives that you can support or get involved with.

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Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered, construed or interpreted as legal or professional advice, guidance or opinion.

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