Ask A Researcher

March 2014

Food Deserts and how they impact North Dakota

Karen K. Ehrens, RD, LRD, Coordinator for Healthy North Dakota and the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition, and Consultant to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture Local Foods Project defines the concept of a food desert, and shares her views on how North Dakota is uniquely impacted by the lack of access to healthy food.


Q: What is a food desert?

Food deserts are places where people live without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Access to healthy food is key to a healthy life, including the life of our communities.

People are surprised to learn that here in North Dakota, where we grow food to feed the world, a number of our counties are classified as food deserts. Agriculture is North Dakota’s leading industry, and we lead the nation in the production of several crops including flax, canola, wheat, dry beans and others. However, it is the raw ingredients that we grow, and most of these ingredients leave the state to be processed before they come back ready to cook or eat.

The specific definition of a food desert agreed upon by several federal departments is “a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

Q: What challenges do those living in a food desert face?

Without this ready access to healthy food, people are more likely to have poor diets, and poor diets are linked to health problems - diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and other chronic diseases. Nearly half of us in North Dakota have one or more of these chronic illnesses. Nearly two-thirds of us in the state are at unhealthy weight levels (classified as overweight or obese).When people have better access to a supermarket or large grocery store, they are more likely to eat healthier foods and to have a reduced risk of obesity.

What if you have diabetes, but the only place to purchase food in your town is a convenience shop or gas station with no fresh fruits or vegetables and no fresh meats? The environment can make it very challenging to select the foods that help prevent or manage disease rather finding only foods that make problems worse.

Many of us take for granted owning a car or truck and being able to drive it, and many of us living in rural areas drive to nearby larger towns for work or to shop. But think for a moment of our seniors living in rural areas of the state who may not like to drive in the winter, or may not even be able to drive due to a disabling condition. Without a local grocery store, getting access to healthy food may be severely hampered.

Q: Do these challenges more greatly affect those of low income?

Nationally, low-income areas have more convenience stores and far fewer supermarkets, limiting healthy options for our children and families. In fact, the term “food swamp” is starting to be used for places where there is high access to many foods with low nutrition value. So on one hand, there may be not enough health-building foods and more than enough of foods we should be choosing less often.

Not everyone in the state owns a car or is able to drive. Those on fixed incomes and/or with lower incomes may not be able to afford a car or have the money for fuel to fill a gas tank to drive to a grocery store or other location that sells food. Outside our larger North Dakota cities, there is very little public transportation for people to use to get to work or to shop.

The nutrition and education program WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) served three-quarters of the children born in North Dakota in 2012. The WIC program provides mothers and children in the program with nutritious foods to support their health and growth. Not being nearby a grocery or full-service store can make it difficult for mothers and children to gain access to healthier foods.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, helps ensure that people have access to enough healthy food. A majority of people receiving SNAP benefits in North Dakota are those who are elderly, disabled or working at low wage jobs. For these most vulnerable populations, nearby access to food is crucial, for these folks may be some of those who have the least access to affordable transportation.

Q: Do food deserts exist in rural and urban communities?

While many people think of food deserts in large cities like New York City or Detroit, food deserts also exist in rural areas, including areas within North Dakota. The USDA Food Research Access Map highlights 17 North Dakota counties with potential food deserts, and all are in rural areas of the state.

Grocery stores are also more than just places to get food; often they are anchors in rural communities. Without a grocery store, people in small towns miss out not only on access to food, but also local taxes, charitable giving, and jobs.

In the greater Fargo-Moorhead area, the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments developed a list of “emerging” food deserts. Members of the Cass-Clay Healthy People Initiative are working to identify and target these emerging food deserts, areas where there is not a grocery store within one half mile of a residential neighborhood with high concentrations of low-income or minority populations.

Many of the people now living in North Dakota’s food deserts once lived lives rich in local foods with hunting, gathering, gardening and farming traditions. These Native American people were forced to re-settle to reservation lands where their access to food and land was greatly changed and/or restricted. Today, small dedicated groups of people are working to regain their food sovereignty.

Q: How can this data be used to help our communities?

I am so very pleased that North Dakota Compass has added information on this important topic! I have been inquiring for several years to find an organization to help make this information more widely available.

With this rich information, city and regional planners, economic developers, farmers and ranchers,  public health workers, university students and researchers, elected officials at all levels, hunger relief and health advocates and residents who are looking to improve health of North Dakotans through better access to food will be able to find the areas where healthy food is harder to come by. These gaps can then be targeted for filling with grocery stores or other places to find food.

The potential solutions to filling gaps in food access are about getting food to people or people to food. Grocery stores, supermarkets, and other large food retail stores are important solutions for increasing access to healthy foods by all. Other places, including backyard gardens, community gardens, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures also play an important role. Food co-ops are another food retail option that is picking up food in our state. And an important part of providing food for all are the nearly 300 food pantries, food shelves, and shelters that are part of the Great Plains Food Bank network of partners.

With the new food access tools from North Dakota Compass, all these partners can be better connected and working together to build a healthier North Dakota.


US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 1/8/14 at

United States Department of Agriculture, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, (AP-036), June 2009,

Morland, Kimberly, Steve Wing, and Ana Diez Roux. “The Contextual Effect of the Local Food Environment on Residents' Diets: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study.” American Journal of Public Health 92.11 (2002): 1761-768.

Economic and Community Development Outcomes of Healthy Food Retail, Policy Link and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, accessed on 2/7/14 at

Metropolitan Food Systems Plan, Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments, 10/2013,

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