Lingering ‘Food Deserts’ Spark Calls for Further Federal Help

  • Millions of Americans have scant access to healthful food
  • Buffalo grocery shooting underscores community’s plight

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Advocates are pushing Congress, as part of the next farm bill, to help low-income, underserved communities gain access to fresh and healthful food.

The Biden administration this week announced another $155 million toward a program meant to help the more than 18 million people—or 6% of the US population—who live in food deserts, according to Agriculture Department data. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a pet project then-First Lady Michelle Obama created in 2014, was reauthorized in 2018.

“In major cities and remote rural areas, far too many Americans live in food deserts that severely limit their ability to access healthy foods,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsacksaid.

The shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo last month further highlighted the scarcity of groceries in many communities, as the supermarket was the only store for neighborhood residents to get fresh food.

The Agriculture Department grants money to help healthful-food stores get off the ground in low-income areas. The funding boost will come from the $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan and other relief legislation, a USDA spokesperson told reporters before Vilsack’s remarks Wednesday.

Earlier: Biden Devotes $2.1 Billion to Strengthen US Food Supply Chain

Advocates, as well as Vilsack, say one program isn’t enough and want further steps to improve grocery access.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought remedies, including a Senate measure (S. 203) that would provide grants and tax credits to food providers as an incentive to promote healthful groceries in low-income food deserts. The bill, introduced in 2021, has yet to receive a committee hearing.

“Too many Americans lack access to fresh nutritious and healthy foods,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the bill’s sponsor, said when the bill was introduced. “Unfortunately, that reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has made it even more difficult for working families to seek out and afford healthy foods.”

Photographer: Claire Bangser/AFP via Getty Images
A prepared food menu at Burnell’s Lower Ninth Ward Market in New Orleans in April 2020. Burnell’s is the only grocery store in what is otherwise considered a “food desert.”

The agriculture secretary said legislation in Congress will be key to addressing US food deserts and other nutrition challenges. “The Farm Bill presents a critical opportunity to advance the new vision of the transformed food system we discuss today,” Vilsack said.

Looking Beyond Grants

The USDA funding boost also included $75 million toward programs that encourage urban agriculture and composting in cities, as well as $60 million to increase schools’ local food purchases.

Urban agriculture, which Michelle Obama championed with a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, has been floated as a way to get fresh food into cities. The 2018 farm bill took a step further, creating a USDA office for the practice. The office granted money to growers in urban areas and established committees in 11 counties to oversee its use.

While the USDA money is a “step in the right direction,” one-time grants may not be enough, Lauren Ornelas, the founder of food justice advocacy group Food Empowerment Project.

“My fear is that it still misses many of the main issues,” Ornelas said. “We need businesses to be owned and run by those who are the most impacted who actually live in those communities.”

For example, bigger grocery chains can exacerbate food deserts by moving out and making it impossible for another food provider to take their place, she said. Safeway Inc., for example, held a restrictive deed to a plot of land in Washington, D.C., that prevented a grocery store in the area for almost 20 years, before an agreement with the city government in 2015. Safeway didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.

Ornelas urged lawmakers to take on such restrictive covenants.

Read More: Rotisserie Chicken With Food Stamps? Lift the Ban, Lawmakers Say

The farm bill also needs to promote access to nutrition education and incentives to purchase healthy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—the largest government food aid for low-income Americans, Caroline Harries, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, said.

The government should also pay to help corner stores offer healthful foods as a way to increase options for shoppers, Harries said.

“We can’t just tackle one thing,” she said. “We have to tackle them all in a thoughtful, equitable, comprehensive, innovative way so that whatever hurdles we may face, we know we have a strong foundation in place.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Robin Meszoly at

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