Food Deserts: Finding Affordable and Healthier Food Options


Living off the beaten path and in a smaller rural community has its appeal. No traffic, less light pollution, lower housing costs, closer communities, and often, a slower pace of life. However, when it comes to securing access to resources for a healthy diet you may find that your small-town oasis is also a food desert.

Food Desert Defined

The USDA defines a “food desert” as a geographic area where residents have limited or no convenient access to affordable and healthy food options, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. These areas are often characterized by a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.

Food deserts are typically found in low-income communities and are associated with a variety of socioeconomic factors, including smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment rates.

The presence of food deserts can lead to increased risks of serious health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related conditions due to the limited availability of nutritious food options.

Where are Food Deserts Located?

The Food Desert Locator developed by USDA’s Economic Research Service identifies about 10% of census tracts in the United States as food deserts, affecting approximately 13.5 million people with low access to sources of healthy food. This tool allows users to locate and understand food deserts by defining them as low-income tracts where residents lack easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

Food Deserts and Health Challenges

Americans living in “food deserts”  face several challenges, including:

  1. Limited Access to Healthy Foods: Residents often have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods, making it difficult to maintain a nutritious diet.
  2. Transportation Challenges: Low-income families in food deserts are less likely to have reliable transportation, which can prevent them from traveling longer distances to buy groceries, further limiting their access to healthy food options.
  3. Higher Costs of Healthy Foods: Healthy food often costs more, and for families living paycheck to paycheck, the higher cost of healthy food could make it inaccessible even when it’s readily available.

Healthy Food Options in Unlikely Places

It seems no matter where you go, big city or small town in the middle of nowhere, there’s a dollar store of some kind. General Dollar, Dollar-Tree, Family Dollar, and others depending on the region you live in, may have some surprisingly healthy food options for you.

Recently a few members of the Yumlish communications team went in search of healthier food items available at the dollar stores in our areas. Here are some of the product options we came across:

  1. Whole grain and dry bulk products: Whole grain dry foods, pasta, tortillas, or whole wheat bread, which is typically quite costly at regular grocery stores.
  2. Canned or frozen vegetables and fruits: Tomatoes, peaches, mixed fruit. Some locations even carry a fresh produce selection as well.  
  3. Pantry items: Flour, sugar, milk, peanut butter, honey, jam, spaghetti sauce, canned meats (I.e., tuna or chicken), beans, and olive oil.
  4. Snack foods: Minimally processed like trail mixes, whole grain crackers, and pickles.

Each store may vary in what they carry, but this is an option worth exploring. Another consideration is popular chain truck stops like Pilot Flying J, Mach 1, Sapp Bros., Speedway, TA Travel Center, and Loves, which are commonly found in less populated areas. They tend to carry a larger selection of fresh foods like prepared fruit and vegetables, and a greater selection of snack foods. Some may carry pantry item essentials as well, especially in more remote areas.

The Future of Food Deserts

Some states, like Texas, have initiatives and food studies going to address food deserts, including encouraging major retail grocery chains to open stores in federally designated food deserts. In California, some state initiatives have made progress in improving food access, but more comprehensive and sustained efforts are still needed to fully eliminate food deserts.


Living in rural areas offers perks like less traffic and lower housing costs, but it can also mean limited access to healthy food, creating food deserts. Often these areas lack affordable, nutritious options and often coincide with low-income communities, leaving residents vulnerable to increased health risks like obesity and diabetes. Whether you’re living in a food desert or just passing through, check out the local dollar stores and truck stops in the region. They just may offer some of the healthier food options on your grocery list.

For some ideas on healthy eating on a budget, check out our blog on a Healthy Eating on a Budget.

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