Food Justice and Food Deserts

No Car and No Supermarket Stores Within a Mile

Urban settings have historically housed disadvantaged, minority communities, where segregation, social injustice, lower access to quality services, and a clean and safe environment can be the norm. One symptom of these issues is the prevalence of food deserts in such urban neighborhoods. Chicago is home to several food deserts, which are highlighted in this interactive map from the Chi-Town Review. Not only are people in poorer neighborhoods  more constrained by lack of transportation options for education and employment; their access to food is also limited by the lack of access to grocery stores and options for healthy food choices (Sadler, Gilliland, Arku 2013). A positive correlation exists between proximity to grocery stores and consumption of fresh produce (Bedore 2010). Since these elements are key to healthy diets, people who do not have access to grocery stores tend to suffer disproportionately from health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (Sadler et al. 2013; Bedore, 2010). This trend is clearly visible in the maps below: areas with low access to grocery stores have higher instances of obesity.

When urban planners and social justice experts approach inequality in urban areas, it is rarely framed in terms of food systems and access to food (Bedore, 2010). This gap in strategic and collaborative planning risks overlooking potentially beneficial solutions to improving overall quality of life and health of persons living in disadvantaged areas.

Food and food-related issues have social ramifications, which means that by targeting these issues, the quality of life in some communities will improve as a whole. The most obvious result of poor nutrition is health related, so ensuring reliable access to wholesome food can prevent and ameliorate certain illnesses. Regaining control of their food sources can rally a community around a pressing local issue, and allowing them to become independent from large food companies.

The concept of food democracy (Bedore, 2010) stresses the importance of food systems being transparent and accountable to the people consuming the food. This way, people have a choice in what they eat, rather than being forced to consume unhealthy food disproportionately. If communities become more involved in the production of their own food, there is a greater likelihood that culturally-sensitive produce can be grown, allowing people to remain in-touch with their culture through culinary experiences. If community gardens or similar ventures are adopted, food systems become a way to improve environmental quality in urban areas, and provide a means by which people can connect with nature.

The food justice model has the potential to transform these inequities and can be utilized as a rallying point around consumer rights, the connection between human and environmental health, quality of food production and distribution, and policy change.


Bedore, M. (2010), Just Urban Food Systems: A New Direction for Food Access and Urban Social Justice. Geography Compass, 4: 1418–1432. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2010.00383.x

Sadler, R. C., Gilliland, J. A. and Arku, G. (2013), Community development and the influence of new food retail sources on the price and availability of nutritious food. Journal of Urban Affairs, 35: 471–491. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.2012.00624.x