By the USDA’s last count, about 12% of the population qualified as food insecure, meaning their “access to adequate food is limited by lack of money and other resources.” That’s about 15 million households, a number that has remained basically static over the last few years.
Part of the issue is financial: People who are unemployed or hold low-paid minimum wages jobs often can’t afford basic necessities. And only 60% of Americans who are eligible for food stamps actually access them. And when they do, they often don’t buy enough food to feed their families.
But besides money, one of the biggest additional hurdles for many food insecure Americans that they can’t reach a store that offers fresh, nutritious food because the store itself is too far away–especially if they lack adequate transportation or work constantly to make ends meet. Based on census data from 2015, researchers estimate that nearly 13% of Americans who live in census tracts that qualified as “low-income” are also “low-access” when it comes to food. That means these spots have higher than average poverty rates, and are in urban areas are more than a mile from a grocery store, or more than 10 miles away in rural ones. That number has changed little since 2010. In 2017, the agency used more basic data to calculate the sheer number of Americans likely affected: There are just under 35 million people in low-income, low access urban areas, and about 4.6 million in rural ones.
The latest report maps out proximity-to-store trends by race and ethnicity, as well as on a a state-by-state basis. It turns out that 40% of Americans actually live more than a mile from a food store. Not surprising given the diversity of cities, racial and ethnic minorities tend to live closer to grocery stores than their white counterparts. People with lower incomes are often closer to stores, too: Food stamp beneficiaries who use SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) are far more likely to live within a half mile or less of stores. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have the time or ability to get to them.
“Accessing affordable and nutritious food is a challenge for many Americans,” notes the report. But the solution isn’t as simple as cities or states providing incentives for the construction of more grocery stores, or the USDAs’ recent agreement to allow some home delivery services to accept SNAP benefits. As the USDA pointed out in its initial analysis, the number of urban low-income, low access zones actually grew by 5% between 2010 and 2015, due largely to “a rise in the number of low-income areas—perhaps a casualty of the 2007-09 recession—rather than low access.” Far more neighborhoods became crisis zones. The plight became more precarious not just when the existing stores disappeared or moved away, but when people’s ability to shop for and afford food disappeared.