Helping American Families Lift Themselves Out of the Food Desert

Ending the Endemic

Gas station from above

The saying goes that we are what we eat. But in reality, it’s not always that simple. Many American families live where nutritious foods are hard to come by. Additionally, any fresh grocery items that might be available may also be prohibitively expensive. This is the everyday reality in a food desert—and it’s affecting millions. But as we’re seeing in communities throughout the country, people are finding new ways to tackle food insecurity head-on. And at Bayer, we’re leveraging our unique insights and capabilities in life science to help support everyday health for everyone. 

Food deserts create compound problems in communities and across generations. This is largely because they have become an ongoing, systemic challenge in the U.S.. And for families who get caught in them, it is difficult to break free. But, when we understand the root causes and challenges of American food deserts, we’re better able to develop solutions to help stop the cycle so everyone can access the food—and nutrition—we all need in order to flourish.

Food deserts affect virtually every aspect of everyday life for those who live in them. The relentless burden of struggling to find and access food makes struggling communities even more vulnerable to the many new and everyday challenges they face.

Chip back showing front: Today's Meal and back: Tomorrow's Health Challenge

Growing Generational Impacts of Malnutrition

It’s not easy to thrive in the food desert—psychologically, economically nor biologically. We all need vital nutrients and minerals in order for our bodies to function properly, whether it’s generating the energy we need to go about our day or supporting our immune systems to fend off illness and disease. So when malnourishment becomes an issue, many other health challenges follow quickly behind.

Chronic disease

How we eat influences our overall health, for better and worse. Today, the U.S. faces an ever-growing epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. As a leading cause of death and disability in America, these preventable chronic diseases often stem from poor nutrition. These health challenges disproportionately impact people living in rural areas, racial and ethnic minority groups, and those of lower socio-economic status. So what’s the common thread that ties all of these people together? They’re all vastly more likely to live in a food desert.

Childhood obesity

Food deserts pose a considerable threat to the next generation. In America, childhood obesity has risen 300% from 1963–2018 alone. To make matters worse, the U.S. childhood obesity rate almost doubled during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to irregular mealtimes, reduced access to nutritious foods and fewer opportunities for physical activity. It’s a concerning trend for everyone, but especially for the many overweight children currently living in food deserts whose families already face difficulties to access balanced nutrition necessary to support their overall health.

Difficulty aging

Due to the many interwoven challenges they present, food deserts can also make aging more difficult. In 2020 alone, an astounding 5.2 million people over 60 years-old faced hunger in the U.S.. If they can even find what they’re looking for, many older adults may struggle to get food home due to various physical constraints like the difficulty of lugging heavy grocery bags up flights of stairs. Many seniors in food deserts are also limited by health conditions that require special diets beyond what’s available in their area, particularly in communities without grocery stores. These health and mobility challenges may also prevent people from being able to cook, which further reduces their access to nutritious meals.

Food, Finances and the Struggle to Stay Afloat

Just like food deserts can exhaust the human body, they may also deplete a community’s economic potential. This is because fluctuations in individual income, household finances and the overarching economy can make it even more difficult for many Americans to access fresh foods.

Walking the tightrope

When families already struggle to afford fresh and nutritious food, any form of financial stress can undermine that possibility entirely. For example, when the average price of gas in the US increased almost 270% between 2020–2022, it made it more expensive just to get to the grocery store. Price hikes like these hit even harder in food deserts, where people often have to visit multiple stores to find what they need. Additionally, fresh food itself has become more expensive. In 2022, the USDA predicts that the prices for grocery items may increase between 10–11%, making it even more difficult for families who are already under financial pressure.

The rising cost of eating cheap

Families who can’t afford fresh food in grocery stores often eat cheaper, processed options that tend to be lower in nutritional value and higher in sugar, salt and fat. In turn, eating poorly can lead to chronic diet-related conditions and increased medical bills needed to treat them, making it all the more important—and difficult—to afford fresh, nutritious foods. In this cycle, poor nutrition, chronic disease and financial burdens all work together to decrease the average life expectancy of people living in food deserts by up to 15 years. 

Decreased community wealth

Food deserts generally emerge and linger in low-income areas. When people must work so hard to find and afford healthy food to nourish themselves, they aren’t available to pursue or create other opportunities to strengthen their community. As time passes, these neighborhoods can become less dense as people leave to seek a higher quality of life elsewhere. This in turn offers businesses less incentive to open up shop. And without this economic attention and opportunity, these communities grow poorer still.

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Inside view of gas station market
Starving with a full belly

Without the funds, time or proximity to access fresh groceries, it’s not always easy to cook at home. Instead, many turn to prepared foods that may seem more convenient, but tend to merely dampen hunger without actually fully nourishing the body. 

Few and far between

In food deserts, it’s especially hard to find ingredients for a balanced diet, particularly those with a shorter shelf life like fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and other items you won’t find in convenience stores. 

The problems with packaged food

Processed foods tend to be much cheaper to make, distribute and store, which in turn means they’re easier for people to afford when money is tight. However, they also have hidden costs such as higher medical bills associated with chronic, diet-related diseases. 

When food disappears, communities do too

If people can’t afford food, they’re also likely to face other financial challenges. So where food deserts emerge, many people are forced to leave. As neighborhoods become less dense, there are fewer people to hold communities together.   

Running on empty

Many people in food deserts must visit multiple stores to find what they need. This means paying more for fuel and public transportation. So when gas prices rise, it can become prohibitively expensive to even get to the grocery store. 

A great American gap

The overwhelming majority of Americans have never set foot on a farm. This disconnect can be especially  extreme in food deserts, where people struggle to find fresh produce, meat and dairy farms produce. 

Fried foods galore

Frying food is one of the quickest ways to cook, but there is a considerable trade-off in terms of health. That’s because fried foods concentrate oils and fats that can contribute to health conditions overtime. 

Cooking without a kitchen

Not everyone has access to the working kitchen appliances they need to prepare meals using fresh ingredients. Instead, pre-packaged microwavable meals offer an option for hot food, but often at the price of proper nutrition. 

Addressing the American Food Desert

Once they arise, food deserts become deeply entrenched in communities. But when we understand these complex and multi-faceted issues, we can develop effective solutions. In fact, this is already happening across the US as people are coming together to pursue new ideas, possibilities and solutions

Breaking down the barriers

Food deserts emerge in communities, but some solutions begin on the farm. By driving innovations in plant breeding and advanced phenotyping, Bayer is helping produce stay fresher, longer so it can reach more people. This of course is enhanced by Bayer’s Food Chain Partnership, which streamlines the supply chain from farms to grocery stores in ways that ensure fresh foods arrive safely and on-time.

Citrus fruits on green background
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Bringing farms to the people—and vice versa.

Food ties us all together, but many Americans are relatively removed from the everyday realities of agriculture. In fact, only around 1.4% of employed Americans work on a farm. But vertical farming is changing that by enabling people to grow more produce on less land—especially in dense urban areas. In addition to providing the opportunity to cultivate fresh produce close to home, vertical farms also offer the potential to create jobs and economic growth to fight food deserts from multiple angles. 

Vertical farming plants
Advancing nutrition for everyone

Ensuring access to fresh produce is one thing. But to break the cycle behind food deserts, we also need to empower people to properly nourish themselves. When fresh produce isn’t an option, supplements can help. That’s the driving force behind our Nutrient Gap Initiative, which works to provide people in underserved communities with greater access to essential vitamins and minerals. While this work is already making a bigger difference every day, we’re striving to support 50 million people per year by 2030.

Girl on a swing over green background
Building better eating habits

Even beyond the bounds of food deserts, the majority of Americans don’t consume enough fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains and healthy oils. To help address this, we’re leveraging recent innovations in plant breeding to grow new varieties of better-tasting fruits and vegetables that encourage healthier snacking. After all, when people reach for fresh produce over processed foods, they instantly upgrade their nutrition. It’s not just possible: it’s already successful. In fact, we’ve even grown a new broccoli variant students actually want to eat!

Broccoli florets texture
Working together to build community

Our philanthropic arm, Bayer Fund, is an ongoing supporter of Feeding America, a nationwide grassroots initiative that sources and donates meals to hungry Americans in rural areas, where 90% of food insecure counties are found. Bayer Fund is also proud to partner with Operation Food Search to support their Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts program. Most recently, this took shape as a $212,500 grant to help provide fresh, local foods and household items to pregnant individuals and their families who are experiencing food insecurity.

Pregnant woman with toddler

From Food Deserts to Flourishing Communities

Food deserts present unprecedented challenges for the everyday health and wellbeing of communities across America. But they also provide opportunities for us all to work together to build a better, more equitable food system for everyone. This is the heart of our vision of achieving Health for All, Hunger for None. And to do so, we’re working with experts, neighbors and everyday people to tackle these challenges once and for all. By harnessing our unique capabilities, developing new solutions and sharing what we learn, we’re constantly finding new ways to help more people address hunger and other everyday health challenges in communities across the country.

9 min read