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Northwest Florida is home to 24 food deserts

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Hunter Morrison
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WUWF Public Media

According to the USDA’s most recent food access research report, 12.8% of Americans — more than 39 million people — live in food deserts. A food desert can be defined as a geographic area where residents may have low income and low access to healthy foods. 

“A food desert is an area where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh, nutritious food,” said Michael Ledger, president and CEO of Feeding the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies food deserts by searching for low-income, low-access geographic areas based on census data. In low-income areas, the local poverty rate must be at least 20%.

While food deserts are commonly found in rural areas, where the closest grocery store or supermarket is 10 or more miles away, they can also be found in urban communities. An urban area can be defined as a food desert when the closest grocery store is one or more miles away.

“One is your urban food desert, which can be a little hard to understand when you think about an urban area, but it is the case that there can be parts of an urban area where there’s just no grocery stores, no access to wholesome, fresh produce and other foods,” Ledger said.

Some individuals who live in food deserts may not have access to adequate transportation or are unable to make trips to the nearest grocery store or supermarket. As a result, they may be left to purchase food items at convenience stores or gas stations.

“A convenience store is intended to be a convenience store,” said DeDe Flounlacker, executive director at Manna Food Pantries. “They don’t really have a lot of healthy food that’s available there, so it’s very different than being able to go to a grocery store or a produce market where you can get access to healthy food.”

Areas with low access and low income are not always feasible when it comes to the development of grocery stores. According to the USDA, these areas may be more expensive to develop a grocery store or may lack the proper infrastructure to do so.

Between Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties, 24 geographic subdivisions are identified as food deserts.

Escambia County has the most food deserts, with many in urban areas such as Wedgewood, Ensley, Montclair, Myrtle Grove and Warrington. In Santa Rosa, much of the city of Milton and Floridatown south of Pace have been identified as food deserts. Portions of Crestview and Eglin Air Force Base are on the list in Okaloosa. And, the largest food deserts in the region cover rural portions of northern Walton County.

Census data suggests that this affects over 102,000 people.

Individuals who live in food deserts are at greater risk for malnutrition because of a lack of access to nutritious food. This includes a lack of access to essential food items such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

The USDA recommends that half of our daily food intake should consist of fruits and vegetables.

“Fruits and vegetables are great because that’s where we get a lot of our vitamins and minerals,” said Nikki Bloodworth, pediatric dietitian at Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola. “We need for a variety of different things, so getting a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors is really beneficial for all of the little intricacies and things that help our body do the different things that it does.”

When it comes to food deserts, the most at-risk populations include children, the elderly, minorities, single-parent families, and those with low access to transportation. Those with financial issues are also disproportionately affected.

“I think it stands that the reason is often the places where the lowest incomes are are also the places where you’re less likely to find the access to the nutrition that you’d hope to have,” said Ledger. “The stores aren't necessarily there.”

If you are someone you know is struggling with food insecurity, visit Feeding the Gulf Coast’s Find Help page. You can also dial United Way of West Florida’s 2-1-1 resource service line by dialing 211.

This story is part of a series about food deserts in Northwest Florida. For more information about food deserts, click here.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.