A recent visual study presented by Whole Foods Market paints a daunting picture of the scarcity of quality food in the U.S. Approximately 3 million Americans, or 1% of the U.S. population, live in food deserts. The poorest city in the nation, Camden, New Jersey, has only one supermarket serving a population of 77,334. New Orleans’ 9th Ward, the largest of the 17 Wards, has not had a supermarket since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. The closest supermarket is 3.5 miles away in a nearby parish.

A map produced by the Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control brings the issue closer to home. A look at food deserts across the nation shows an alarming prevalence across the Southeast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture broadly defines urban food deserts as low-income census tracts where people live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, that distance expands to people living more than 10 miles from supermarkets or large grocery stores. According to the USDA’s Food Desert Locator, there are approximately 250,000 residents living in 21 food deserts located in 14 different South Carolina counties. This means that almost 57% of the population lives in communities where there is low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

Food deserts are an economic concern. Not only are they void of healthy food options, but they do not benefit from the economic development opportunities that come from having a local grocery store. Residents of food deserts spend approximately $311 million annually on groceries outside of their local community, which is known as grocery store leakage. These markets can support 529,000 square feet of grocery retail, which directly translates into jobs, transportation cost savings, citizen engagement, economic development, an increased tax base, and most importantly, improved access to healthy food.

The SC Community Loan Fund is working to increase access to healthy, affordable food on the local level. Last September, CLF co-hosted the Growing Food and Opportunities in South Carolina workshop, bringing together leaders from around the state to address the issue of food deserts and food insecurities in South Carolina. At the end of this month, CLF will convene with grocers and wholesalers to explore opportunities for investing in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to healthy, affordable food. Jeff Brown, CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, Inc. and Chairman of Uplift Solutions, will share his success building supermarkets in food deserts. He believes that full-service supermarkets in underserved communities are the anchor to fulfill community needs and ensure consistent access to fresh, affordable food.

For more information on CLF’s Healthy Food Financing Program, please contact Anna Hamilton at anna@sccommunityloanfund.org.