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Food Access in Rural Communities

Rural households show higher rates of food insecurity than their urban counterparts; 15.5% of rural residents live in food insecure households, compared to 12.5% of urban. Following the federal definition of a food desert, however, more urban residents than rural are estimated to live in food deserts; 29.8% of urban residents need to travel more than 1 mile to the nearest supermarket, while 5.8% of rural residents need to travel between 10-20 miles to the nearest supermarket.

While these differences are striking, researchers identified that in urban areas, low-income individuals were situated closer to supermarkets than moderate- and high-income individuals. In contrast, low-income individuals in rural areas were located further from supermarkets than moderate- and high-income individuals. Rural areas experiencing limited food access identified lack of transportation infrastructure as the most critical component of their environment, whereas urban areas with limited food access identified racial segregation and greater income inequality as the greatest barriers.

“Obesity” and “overweight” are words used to describe weight ranges greater than what is generally considered to be healthy for a given height and increased risk for other conditions. Overweight is defined in adults as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25.0-30.0 and obese is defined as having a BMI of 30.0 or more. BMI in children is identified where the child falls on the age growth chart; overweight is defined as 85th-95th percentile. Obese is defined as equal to or greater than 95th percentile.

Both adults and youth residing in rural communities are more likely to be obese than their urban counterparts (36% of both adults and youth in rural areas versus 30% of both in urban). Youth in frontier communities are even more at risk of being overweight or obese than youth in larger rural communities, with 38% identified as overweight or obese.

Residents of rural communities are also more likely to suffer from chronic disease and disability than urban residents and have a lower life expectancy.

Individuals residing in food deserts (both urban and rural) generally have lower rates of vehicle access than those living in other areas. Although rural residents generally report higher rates of vehicle ownership, those who lack reliable transportation are particularly isolated, given the distance to the grocery store in rural communities and lack of public transportation options. These findings suggest the complexity of food access and its relationship to poverty and transportation.

See RHIhub's Rural Obesity and Weight Control Topic Guide and Rural Obesity Prevention Toolkit for more information on obesity in rural communities and ways to prevent it.

See RHIhub's topic guides on Rural Hunger and Access to Healthy Food and Social Determinants of Health for Rural People for more general information about each of these topics.

Resources to Learn More

Food Access Strategies in Rural Communities
Webinar outlining a framework for addressing four types of issues that affect access to food: physical, economic, cultural, knowledge. Provides both community-level and policy-level suggestions to help develop, fund, and implement a rural food access strategy.
Author(s): Wooten, H., Fry, C., Redfern, T., & Holady, R.
Organization(s): ChangeLab Solutions
Date: 9/2014

Hunger and Housing in Rural America: Intersecting Challenges and Solutions
Special edition issue of the quarterly publication Rural Voices, focusing on the related issues of housing and food security in rural America. Various articles examine how individual communities and populations are coping with current challenges.
Organization(s): Housing Assistance Council
Date: 2013

Improving Access to Healthy Food in Rural Communities
Presentation Slides
Slides from a webinar highlighting three programs across the country (Rural Grocery Initiative in KS, The Conservation Fund in NC, Farm to Table in NM) that are using innovative approaches and methods to address food access.
Author(s): Laveta, T., Procter, D., Roy, P., & Sager, M.
Organization(s): Grantmakers in Health
Date: 7/2015