The Real Estate Developer’s Role in Reducing Food Deserts

A food desert is not a barren wasteland, but rather an area where access to fresh and healthy food is limited. This can be due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets in the vicinity, making it difficult for residents to obtain nutritious options. Affordability is a major player in the creation of food deserts. For example, lower income individuals who live in areas with high costs of living might not be able to afford nutritious food that has been priced with wealthy residents in mind. Traffic congestion, crime, and other conditions that make safely or efficiently traveling through the area next to impossible can also create food deserts. Similarly, residents who live in areas with access to nutritious, affordable food but who are house-bound by disabilities, economic conditions, and other factors are often stuck in their own miniature food deserts. Though food deserts do occur in urban areas, rural communities and those that are isolated in some other way are especially likely to be food deserts. For example, food insecurity is particularly common in tribal communities. According to this resource from Move for Hunger, “about one in four Native Americans experience food insecurity, compared to 1 in 9 Americans overall” But the impact of food deserts is not limited to any one group. Unfortunately, these areas are more common than you might think, affecting millions of people across the United States. According to the Humane League, “about 19 million residents— 6.1% of the population—live in low-income, low-access areas and have trouble getting to a grocery store.” In this post, we outline the public health impacts of food deserts and consider the developer’s role in reducing food deserts across America.

What Exactly is a Food Desert?

A food desert is an area where residents have limited access to fresh and affordable food. This may be due to the absence of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or other places that sell healthy foods in their location. In some cases, there may be food options available, but they are too expensive costly for residents who face poverty or budget constraints. You might also have heard the term “food swamp.” A food swamp is an area where affordable, healthy, and fresh food is available, but it is “swamped” by cheaper, less nutritious food.


8.3% of American households do not own a car, meaning their ability to travel outside of a food desert is limited.

According to Healthy Food Access, food deserts impact “more than 15% of the state’s population, as over 2 million Pennsylvanians, including more than 500,000 children, live in lower-income areas with limited access to a local grocery store.”

● Poor Black neighborhoods, tribal communities, and physically isolated Americans like those living in Hawaii, Alaska, and other difficult to access areas are most likely to live in food deserts.

According to a 2014 study, “at equal levels of poverty, black census tracts had the fewest supermarkets, white tracts had the most, and integrated tracts were intermediate…poor
predominantly black neighborhoods face a double jeopardy with the most limited access to quality food and should be prioritized for interventions.”

According to new information from the Social Policy Data Lab, “54 million people are food insecure and 23.5 million live in food deserts…the country is now facing the worst levels of food insecurity since the USDA first started measuring this metric in 1995.”

This resource from the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that “nearly 39.5 million people — 12.8% of the U.S. population — were living in low-income and low-access areas [in 2017].”

According to the Bureau of Transportation Services, “an estimated 25.5 million Americans have disabilities that make traveling outside the home difficult.”

What are the Health Impacts of Living in a Food Desert?

Both food swamps and food deserts can contribute to poor nutrition and a range of health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Living in a food desert is especially harmful to children. The rate of childhood obesity is greater in areas with limited access to healthy foods. This can lead to increased rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases later in life.

A lack of fresh fruits and vegetables can also result in poor nutrition, which can lead to deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals. In addition, the Department of Agriculture has found that people living in food deserts are more likely to rely on convenience stores or fast-food restaurants, leading to a diet high in processed foods and added sugars.

Who Lives in Food Deserts?

To address this issue, it is important to understand the factors that contribute to the existence of food deserts. These include economic conditions, transportation limitations, and the distribution of food outlets. Research has shown that low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have limited access to healthy food choices compared to wealthier areas.

Additionally, rural communities tend to have fewer grocery stores per mile compared to urban areas, making them even more prone to food deserts. Moreover, these challenges are
exacerbated when faced with additional burdens such as lack of education on nutrition and health practices or dependence on cars rather than public transportation.

Because of recent inflation and skyrocketing food prices, many more Americans find themselves in temporary food deserts and food swamps. Given this, practically anyone regardless or race, age, or location could temporarily live in a food desert. Healthy food is available, but it is so expensive that many families opt for less costly, less nutritious groceries.

How Can We Reduce the Prevalence of Food Deserts in America?

Development of Sustainable Affordable Housing

One way to reduce the prevalence of food deserts is to encourage developers to build affordable housing near existing grocery stores and markets. This could reduce transportation limitations and increase accessibility. Giving people the ability to walk or bike to their local market reduces costs on budgets already stretched thin by other expenses. Similarly, developers can work with architects to create apartment buildings with green roofs and/or community gardens that are maintained and harvested by residents.

Free Nutrition Education

Another strategy is to offer free classes or guides on nutrition and health practices to those who may not be aware of how to properly use ingredients to cook nutritious meals. Providing a total value that goes beyond just packed bags of groceries doubles down on the benefits that come from being able to purchase healthy foods.

Incentive Programs

Government programs encourage shoppers to choose healthy foods even when they are more expensive by offering cash incentives. According to this resource from the USDA, “SNAP healthy incentive programs encourage people participating in SNAP to purchase healthy foods by providing a coupon, discount, gift card, bonus food item or extra funds.” The USDA also advocates for measures that support local agriculture and small farmers can help bolster the economic vitality of rural areas while increasing access to healthy food options.

Expanded Public Transit

One of the key components in reducing food deserts is expanding public transit. This means increasing the number of buses and trains that run through areas where access to healthy food options is limited. By doing so, residents who may not have a car or live close to a grocery store can easily travel to one.

Chicago is a great example of how expanded public transit can make a big change. The city has implemented a program called Fresh Food Markets, which brings fresh produce to
neighborhoods with limited access to healthy foods. These markets are located near public transportation stops, making it easy for residents to get there.

Another option is to create community programs whereby volunteers transport groups of residents to and from farmers markets and grocery stores.

As demonstrated above, reducing food deserts requires a multifaceted approach that involves many components working together: city officials, developers, educators, and healthcare professionals all play important roles in this process. It will take time and effort, but with tools like education, strategic location choices, and creative solutions, it is possible to reduce the negative impact of food deserts in our communities.

The Developer's Role in Reducing Food Deserts

People who live in food deserts lack access to affordable and nutritious food options, which leads to an increase in food insecurity and poor health outcomes for those who live there. In some cases, house-bound residents live in miniature food deserts — meaning they are unable to travel far from their homes due to disability or another issue. As a developer, you have the power to address this issue by creating integrated communities in which residential and commercial accommodations coincide. For example, developers like you can collaborate with local officials and community members to identify locations for new supermarkets or grocery stores in areas currently lacking those resources.

They could also look into innovative solutions like mobile food trucks or pop-up shops that bring fresh produce and groceries directly into these communities. Developers could work closely with established restaurants and catering services already located within the area; encouraging them to incorporate healthier menu items at a reduced cost would help mitigate the problem.

Below are a few areas in which developers can reduce the impact of food deserts.


One of the key factors that contribute to the existence of food deserts is limited access to healthy food options. Many low-income neighborhoods do not have supermarkets or grocery stores nearby, forcing residents to rely on fast food or convenience stores for their meals. This can lead to a high consumption of unhealthy foods, which can have serious health consequences such as obesity and diabetes. By building grocery stores in these areas, you provide residents with convenient access to fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and other essential components for a healthy diet.

Developers also play a crucial role in rural areas where transportation may be limited. Rural communities often lack easy access to large supermarkets or department stores. This makes it difficult for residents to purchase affordable and nutritious food options without spending excessive amounts on gas and travel time. Developing small-scale grocery stores within these rural communities can solve this problem and provide better food choices for residents.


Another important factor is cost. Healthy food options are often more expensive than processed or fast foods, making them unaffordable for many families on tight budgets. However, as a developer, you can work with local banks to offer discounts or incentives for those who choose healthier food options. Additionally, developing strategies that reduce the cost of healthy groceries can encourage residents to buy nutritious food and improve their overall health.

One Food Desert Solution for Developers: Community Grocery Stores Built Into Apartment Buildings

Building community grocery stores into apartment buildings is one way to reduce the impacts of food deserts in urban areas. In recent years, there has been a growing trend of community grocery stores in apartment buildings. This concept has become increasingly popular as it offers residents the convenience and accessibility of having groceries right at their doorstep. For residents who cannot drive or are otherwise house-bound, these grocery stores prevent them from living in food deserts.

These community grocery stores not only provide fresh produce and household essentials but also create a sense of unity within the building’s community. They encourage social interaction between neighbors, making it easier for them to get to know each other and build relationships. Moreover, these grocery stores often feature locally sourced goods that support small businesses, which strengthens the local economy.

Another advantage of having a community grocery store in an apartment building is its contribution towards sustainable living. The proximity of the grocery store means residents no longer need to drive long distances or rely on packaging-heavy delivery services, reducing their carbon footprint.

However, one potential drawback of this model could be higher prices compared to large chain supermarkets. As these community grocery stores have limited space and resources, they may not be able to offer the same competitive pricing as bigger retailers.

Case Study: The Broadridge Apartment Building and Aldi in Philadelphia

It is important for developers, landlords, and building management to consider how they can strike a balance between affordability and convenience when setting up these stores. For example, RAL Companies partnered with Aldi and local RCOs to build a Broadridge apartment
building on top of a chain grocery store.

Quoting RAL Companies president Spencer Levine in an article for Philadelphia Magazine, Sandy Smith writes that they “‘were able to approach the project from an urban planning and design standpoint rather than a maximum yield standpoint.'” RAL — which got its start developing supermarkets — reinforced its relationships with community leaders and residents throughout the course of this project. It established new partnerships, fostered important local relationships, and boosted its reputation in a city beyond its headquarters in New York.

This is a luxury apartment building, but similar projects could be developed with tenant affordability in mind. Developers stand to gain much more than pure profits with projects that
protect and empower local residents.

Final Thoughts on Reducing Food Deserts Through Thoughtful Development

In conclusion, developers can make a significant impact in reducing food deserts by working alongside community members, local governments, and businesses to provide access to affordable and nutritious food options. Investing in these initiatives is not only socially responsible but also makes economic sense, as reducing food deserts will lead to long-term benefits for both individuals and society as a whole.

Developers and other investors can also partner with firms like AVLV, which is committed to affordable housing solutions, sustainability, and the general social good. While it is clear there are no overnight fixes, implementation of comprehensive strategies across all sectors will slowly reduce the prevalence of food deserts throughout America.




We are AVLV (“Avolve”), a vertically integrated sustainable architecture and real estate development company. 


Cost effective sustainable architecture and development services to developers.


Short and long term sustainable real estate investment opportunities to investor.


For architecture services

For investments