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Do you live in a food desert?

An empty shopping cart in a grocery store aisle.

Jan. 18, 2020—Sometimes the barriers to healthy eating aren't about willpower but about access to nutritious food.

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that more than 29 million Americans live in low-income areas more than a mile from a supermarket. Others live in rural areas more than 10 miles from a grocery store. These areas are called "food deserts."

Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, food deserts are served mainly by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that usually don't offer healthy, affordable food items.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the AHA:

  • Food deserts have a greater concentration of minorities.
  • More than 11 million people who live farther than 1 mile from a grocery store are low-income.
  • More than 2 million households in food deserts are without a vehicle to easily travel to the nearest grocery store.
  • People who live in food deserts have higher rates of obesity and other chronic, diet-related diseases.

What can you do if you live in a food desert?

If you live in a food desert, have a limited income and have no transportation of your own, there are programs that can help.

SNAP. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Eligible families can buy fruit, vegetables, poultry, milk and other items through SNAP. Some stores even provide special discounts if you use your SNAP card to purchase fruits and vegetables.

Even if you don't qualify for SNAP, you can get a free six-week guide to eating on a SNAP budget. Online information includes grocery lists, recipes and cost estimates for dozens of recipes.

Food banks. Both national and local organizations contribute food to food banks. Some food banks deliver boxes of food to you at home. Others let you go through their warehouse and choose for yourself. Food banks are a good source for staples such as rice, pasta and canned goods.

Farmers markets. Farmers markets are great sources of fresh, locally grown produce. You can often buy food at farmers markets using your SNAP card. Many states will give double dollars to SNAP members who use farmers markets, so your $10 in SNAP benefits will get you $20 in produce.

WIC. This is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. It provides food to low-income, breastfeeding and postpartum women. It also serves infants and children up to age 5 who are at risk for poor nutrition.

Head Start. Eligible children 3 and 4 years of age attend Head Start to prepare for school. And kids usually can eat breakfast and lunch at this preschool program.

School meals. Your child may qualify for free or reduced-cost meals at school. School meals today are healthier than ever, with many cafeterias serving lean meat, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables.

Other ideas include:

Community gardens. Is there any space for a community garden in your neighborhood, maybe at a church or a school? Talk to your neighbors to find out how much support there is for developing and maintaining a community garden.

You also could plant your own little garden in plastic pots, a trashcan, a bucket or other containers. Place it on your balcony, on the windowsill or in some other sunny spot.

Share the ride, share the food. You may not have a car, but one of your neighbors might. See if you can get some other people to join you on a ride-sharing trip to your nearest grocery store. Buy as many things in bulk as you can. Then divvy up your bounty (as well as cash for gas).

Tackle a week's cooking in one day. Buy in bulk. Prepare a big batch of favorite recipes on your day off. Freeze in individual containers and use them throughout the week.

Get some tips for eating well on a limited budget.

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