How Food Deserts Impact Wellbeing, Including Sleep

While studies show links between lack of nutritious food and lesser sleep for some, we are only just learning the extent of the impact of food deserts on sleep.

The hand of a person reaching into a grocery cart placing a red bel pepper in their reusable bag.
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Thanks to science, we know a lot about both food and sleep. We know that our bodies need a variety of fruits and veggies every day to get proper nutrition. We’ve discovered that our bodies have individual circadian rhythms. and know more than ever about what causes insomnia and how to treat it.

Thanks to both disciplines, we also know a lot about the relationship between food and sleep — that what we eat very much affects our sleep. Though we hear a lot about the ways food can harm sleep — through heartburn, caffeine, and other issues — the right nutrients in food are also critical to helping us achieve good sleep. Whole, nutritious foods, including vegetables, fruit, lean protein, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dairy can all help contribute to better sleep and healthier sleep cycles.

But what do we know about the relationship between sleep and the lack of food or lack of access to food? Surprisingly little, it turns out.

What is a food desert?

Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable healthy food options — like fruits and vegetables — are either restricted or nonexistent within a reasonably convenient distance, typically one mile or less.

According to the Food Desert Locator developed by USDA’s Economic Research Service, about 10% percent of the country’s 65,000 census tracts qualify as food deserts.

According to a 2017 food access report by the USDA, almost 39.5 million people were living in an area with low access to supermarkets. Further, the USDA estimates that 1.9 million of these low-income households with low access to supermarkets also don’t have a car, essentially prohibiting them from accessing options outside their neighborhoods.

The phenomenon of food deserts leads to “nutritional inequality” with low-income households and residents of food deserts subsisting on less nutritious food than other areas, particularly residents of food oases, where there is an abundance of supermarkets and fresh produce.

Geographic location and the cost of food are the top barriers between Americans and healthy food. Those who experience these hurdles are at risk of experiencing the impacts associated with low food access such as an increased risk of obesity and heart disease. Most often these people are communities of color.

How is a food apartheid different from food desert?

While the term “food desert” has been commonly used in the past, organizers and activists have been pivoting towards the term “food apartheid” instead. This phrasing better reflects the systemic discrimination against communities of color, the economic outcomes that stem from it, that underlies food access.

As a 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University found, people of color are disproportionately impacted by food deserts. In urban areas at least, the study found, Black communities have the fewest supermarkets while communities have the most while multiracial communities landed somewhere in the middle. This is why a shift towards “food apartheid” instead of “food desert” is taking place.

The impact of a lack of food on sleep

Nutritional inequality has vast and long-lasting health and life implications, which can directly impact sleep.

“When I started to think about the intersection of food and sleep in graduate school, I realized that there were people working in both areas. There were people studying food insecurity and food deserts. There were people studying sleep. But there were very few people studying how they may influence each other,” explains Dr. Alexander Testa, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “That seemed like a clear gap to me.”

So, in 2019, he published a study that explored the association between food deserts and short sleep duration among young adults in the United States. He was surprised to find that only Hispanic individuals living in a food desert experienced shorter sleep durations.

“The findings surprised me because we have lengthy research literature about how the aspects of one’s neighborhood and their local environment is related to sleep — things like noise, light pollution, crime, and violence. We know that people’s local context matters,” Testa says. “We also know that when people are hungry or without food, if they’re malnourished, or if they have a very poor diet, that it’s connected to sleep. So there are reasons to think that being in a food desert would be related to sleep. So, in that sense, finding that, on average, living in a food desert wasn’t related to sleep was somewhat surprising.”

However, that doesn’t mean that a relationship couldn’t be established in the future. Testa explains that one of the reasons that food deserts could be thought of as being related to sleep is the time they require residents to spend accessing healthy food. Food deserts aren’t defined by simply a lack of access to food in general, but to affordable healthy and nutritious food as well.

“People might need to spend a lot of time trying to access nutritious food, which might cut into their day and cut down on their sleep,” Testa says. “It may be that people were simply relying on food that was available locally, which is more fast food or unhealthy foods, which could be seen in the long-term relationship to food deserts.”

Because Testa’s subjects were all young adults, it’s possible that the sleep impacts haven’t caught up to them yet. Only more research will decide, but it’s a step towards better understanding the multifaceted impacts that stem from food insecurity.

How are people fighting food apartheids?

“It’s a socio-economic issue,” explains Chef Chris Williams, co-founder of Lucille’s restaurant and its non-profit counterpart Lucille’s 1913 that tackles food insecurity, both based in Houston. “In the majority of the communities we serve, the median income is $15,000 and one community is literally 15 miles away from any fresh food.”

Many communities in situations like these have only corner convenience stores to rely on instead. “What these store owners do is go to [warehouse stores], buy the stuff in bulk, and then bring it back to the neighborhood and mark it up sixty percent. Everyone is just taking advantage of these communities.” Williams explains.

What Williams is trying to do through Lucille’s 1913 is “create a vertically-integrated ecosystem where these communities are now,” he says. What does that mean exactly? That means empowering these communities to feed and take care of themselves through efforts like starting a 54-acre farm and paying community members a minimum of $12 an hour to farm the land, “which would immediately take their income up by $9,000 a year,” he says.

Not only are they being paid to learn how to feed themselves, but they’re also taking that information back to their neighbors to improve the larger community overall. Plus, the farm will also function as a direct-to-community distribution center for the produce cultivated there which will be sold at affordable prices.

Lucille’s 1913 is helping provide a purpose, he adds. “The purpose is to serve not only themselves but their neighbors too, which brings dignity as well as health benefits — that’s the most important thing.”