From Scarcity to Sustenance: 9 Tips for Eating Well in a Food Desert

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A farmer harvesting carrots. Close up.

Bridging the Gap

Finding affordable and nutritious food can be challenging — especially for those who live in food deserts, where fresh produce and healthy ingredients are hard to come by. In a food desert, the nearest supermarkets with affordable vegetables and fruits are miles away, and residents have to rely on convenience stores filled with processed foods. It's not just about choosing broccoli over potato chips; it's the availability of broccoli that's the problem. 

But by following a handful of tips, such as learning how to grow your own produce and buying nonperishable goods in bulk, you can find ways to consume healthy meals without breaking the bank.

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What Is a Food Desert?

A food desert is an area where residents have limited or no direct access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food, often due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travel distance. This typically means that instead of having supermarkets stocked with fresh produce, whole grains, and lean proteins, the landscape is peppered with fast-food chains and convenience stores that primarily offer processed, sugary, and unhealthy foods. Food deserts are generally found in areas with higher rates of poverty and a lack of reliable public transportation.

Those who live in food deserts often face significant challenges when trying to make nutritious choices due to healthier ingredients being either out of reach, unaffordable, or both. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), roughly 6% of the U.S. population lives in a food desert.

Large assortment of canned foods

Stock Up on Nonperishable Goods

Buying staples like beans, rice, and canned vegetables in bulk can be a game changer for those who live in areas with limited access to fresh produce. Not only do these items have a longer shelf life, but buying them in bulk can also save you money. And don't be discouraged — just because you don't have access to fresh ingredients all the time doesn't mean you can't still whip up meals that are healthy and delicious. 

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Grow Your Own Greens

Starting a small vegetable garden can be both therapeutic and practical. Whether it's in your backyard or a couple of pots on your balcony, every little bit counts — and will help you save money in the long run. 

Growing your own veggies also offers peace of mind, knowing they're free from harmful chemicals and pesticides. Plus, there's nothing more rewarding like cooking with produce you've grown with your own hands. 

Bread And Butter Chips

Learn How To Preserve Foods

Whenever you do manage to find fresh produce, consider learning preservation techniques to help your produce last longer. Canning, pickling, or freezing fruits and veggies when they're in season can give you access to them year-round. Bottom line: Don't sleep on grandma's jam-making and pickling lessons.

Related: Time to Brine: 6 Pickle Recipes You Can Make at Home

Portland Farmers Market, Portland, Oregon
Kim G./Yelp

Visit Farmers Markets and Local Co-ops

Local spots such as farmers markets and agricultural cooperatives (co-ops) can be hidden gems in or near food deserts. Often a byproduct of community intervention, farmers markets may extend larger savings to customers by selling their harvests directly, thereby cutting out the middleman and eliminating overheard costs associated with transportation and shipping. Many farmers markets accept EBT/SNAP benefits, and provide a great way to support local businesses and connect with your community. 

Related: What You Can and Can't Buy With SNAP Benefits

Multiracial group of young men and young women gather as volunteers to plant vegetables in community garden with mature woman project manager advice and teamwork

Take Advantage of Communal Features

Using a community garden or fridge can offer another cost-efficient way to gain access to fresh produce or pantry staples year-round. These shared spaces not only bridge the gap in food accessibility, they also foster a sense of community, bonding, and collective responsibility. By sharing the cost of labor and expenses, you can also reap greater yields and more bountiful harvests. 

Related: Cheap Gardening Tips for Starting Your Vegetable Garden

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FG Trade/istockphoto

Carpool to the Grocery Store

Team up with neighbors or friends for monthly or bi-weekly trips to larger supermarkets or shopping hubs outside your area. This way, you can kill two birds with one stone: You get a fun social outing while simultaneously curbing your carbon footprint. Plus, buying groceries in larger batches can often lead to better deals.

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Man cooking for wife

Get Creative With Recipes

Living somewhere with limited access to fresh ingredients can be an opportunity to experiment and get creative with what you have on hand. By brainstorming recipes that work with limited ingredients, you can come up with delicious and unexpected culinary creations. Who knows — you might just be the next Gordon Ramsay. 

Related: 30 Amazing 5-Ingredient Recipes

Seasonal Produce

Look for Seasonal Sales

Keeping an eye out for seasonal sales allows you to capitalize on the natural ebb and flow of harvest times. As certain fruits and veggies peak in their growth cycle, stores often reduce prices to move stock quickly. This can get you fresh produce at a fraction of regular prices — making it a win-win for both your palate and pocket.