The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the shortcomings within the country’s social safety net— especially in the case of food security. The drastic rise in unemployment, lost access to school meals, and volatile food supply chains all contributed to food insecurity rates doubling among all households from February 2020 to May 2020. Even worse, food insecurity among households with children tripled in the same period.

While many Americans became aware of the country’s food insecurity issues in the past year, the phenomenon was not new. Even in 2019—before the pandemic and after years of steadily declining food insecurity rates—10.5% of U.S. households still faced food insecurity. This rate was highest among households with incomes below the poverty line (34.9%) and single-mother households (28.7%). Latino or Hispanic and Black households experienced food insecurity rates of 15.6% and 19.1%, respectively—disproportionately higher than white households (7.9%).

Why, even outside of economic crisis, do over one in 10 families still face food insecurity?

For decades, academics, advocates, and policymakers pointed to unequal geographic access to food as the problem. This geographic focus eventually gave rise to the concept of the “food desert”—a shorthand description for how a lack of fresh food retailers can predispose neighborhood residents to food insecurity. The concept resonated with the media and practitioners, giving rise to new indices and a push to bring fresh food directly to underserved neighborhoods.

However, there are structural issues with the food desert concept. For one, most people shop beyond their neighborhood for food. Food deserts also don’t consider digital delivery services, which reduce the relative importance of one’s physical location. But maybe more importantly, the food desert narrative doesn’t address the primary factor driving food insecurity: financial insecurity.

Read the full article about food deserts by Caroline George and Adie Tomer at Brookings.