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The Food Deserts of Des Moines, Iowa: Limited Access in the Breadbasket of America

In a state often referred to as "America's Breadbasket," it seems counterintuitive to think that food security would pose much of a problem. But in Des Moines, Iowa, however, it does. The city's low population density and inability to attract chain grocers has made it so that great swaths of the downtown core are designated as food deserts.

Food deserts of Des Moines, Iowa

Food deserts are areas in which there is limited access to healthy, affordable food. The USDA identifies a census tract as being a food desert if it qualifies as a low-income community and a low-access community. In an urban area, a significant share of the people in the census tract in an urban area must live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket. When viewing the map of food deserts in the Des Moines metropolitan area, it becomes clear that essentially the entire downtown core is a food desert.

One of the reasons behind the food access problem in Des Moines is the city's low population density. This causes full-service grocery stores to be more spread out, causing them to have to travel farther for their groceries. The smaller the population density, the larger a grocery store's market area must be in order to be profitable. For grocery stores, the more affluent suburbs of Des Moines are a much more attractive location. The real estate is cheaper, the stores can locate near freeways, and there is room for large parking lots. The suburbs are constantly expanding, which creates more demand farther and farther away from the downtown area.

Des Moines, Iowa suburban grocery store

While Des Moines' built environment has to some extent hindered peoples' access to traditional full-service grocery stores, Iowa's farming culture provides alternatives. Community-Supported Agriculture Programs (CSAs) have sprung up in the Des Moines region. Through these programs, local farmers can sell produce at convenient pick-up sites within the city. These CSAs help fill in the gaps in food access in the downtown area, and the consumers in turn help support local food production.

Do you live in a food desert? What is your city doing to mitigate issues of limited food access?

Credits: Images by Molly Carpenter. Data linked to sources.