When you see the word "desert," what comes to mind? If you're hungry, you may think of ice cream, chocolate, cake, or pie. But that would be "dessert" you're thinking of, not "desert."

"Desert" should bring to mind images of areas that receive very little rainfall on an annual basis. You might think of hot, sandy places, such as the Sahara Desert in Africa. However, a desert doesn't have to be hot and sandy. It could be cold and icy instead.

We can also use the word "desert" to describe an area that's lacking in the resources necessary to sustain a healthy life. In this sense of the word, there are many of us who live in a particular type of desert: a food desert.

If you ate breakfast today and have food in the cabinets and refrigerator at home, it may sound odd to think of living in a food desert. However, the term has a particular meaning.

A food desert is an area where residents don't have adequate access to affordable, healthy whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, because there are no grocery stores, farmers' markets, or fresh fruit/vegetable stands within reasonable traveling distance.

Although food deserts can be found in urban, suburban, and rural areas, they tend to be found in low-income areas with few or no grocery stores. Instead, food deserts often have multiple fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

Rather than healthy, whole foods, these stores and restaurants tend to specialize in processed foods that contain large amounts of sugar and fat. These so-called "fringe foods," such as chips, snack cakes, and sodas, are the only choices some people have, and experts believe they are contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic.

Food deserts also lead to food insecurity, which means people often don't know where their food will come from. With limited or no access to healthy alternatives, it can be hard to eat regular, nutritious meals when you live in a food desert.

As a result, food deserts are troubling because they contribute to a variety of health problems, including cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Experts estimate that obesity and obesity-related health problems cost the United States healthcare system over $100 billion each year.

While there is no easy solution to the problem of food deserts, people on the local, state, and national level are working to bring affordable, healthy whole foods to people living in food deserts. From community gardens to mobile food pantries, new ideas are being tried all the time to get fresh fruits and vegetables onto the plates of people across the country.

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