Top Ten Barriers to Local Food Access for Low-Income Individuals

The following report was compiled from data gathered in Iowa, however, many if not all outcomes are applicable in other areas of the nation.

1. Financial Restrictions

We believe that cost is the greatest obstacle low-income individuals face in accessing fresh, and especially organic and locally-produced, food.

  • The cost of vegetables and fruit rose 120% between 1985 and 2000, while the price of junk like sodas and sweets went up less than 50% on average. (source 3)
  • Fresh food often doesnbt provide as many calories per dollar as processed food.
  • Fresh food doesnbt stay fresh as long as processed food.
  • Fresh food requires more labor to make into appealing, satisfying meals than processed food.
  • Eating a variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, as recommended by the USDA, is expensive. Even though some fruits and vegetables can be bought at Farmers Markets for a good price, purchasing products of different nutritional contents on a regular basis throughout the year is costly.
  • Eating out-of-season fresh fruits and vegetables is even more expensive.
  • We believe that healthy food is often one of the first things cut from a familybs budget when they are experiencing financial difficulties. Faced with limited resources,
  • One out of six Americans turns to government food assistance programs.
  • People skip meals.
  • People substitute less expensive, less nutritious alternatives.
  • People go to soup kitchens or food pantries.
  • Parents skip meals to make sure there is enough food for their children. For parents, it is more important to ensure that their children have enough food and bare fullb than it is to provide children with a healthy diet.
  • People cannot afford a balanced meal.
  • People choose to pay bills (e.g. rent, utilities, and prescription drugs) instead of buying food.(source 2)
  • We believe that individuals depending upon supplemental food assistance from the government can be restricted in the types of food they are allowed to purchase.
  • The government places restrictions on where food assistance coupons can be used. For example, WIC coupons cannot be used at the New Pioneer Co-op, the natural food stores in the Iowa City/Coralville area.
  • Organic foods are not always eligible for purchase with WIC coupons. Individual states make the decision. (source 9)

2. Preparation and Storage of Food

We believe that low-income families lack, and cannot afford, much of the equipment and companion ingredients needed to prepare fresh food into a variety of interesting, fulfilling meals throughout the year.

  • Individuals might lack such basic ingredients as: cooking oil, garlic/onion, butter, milk, flour, spices, etc
  • Purchasing basic kitchen equipment can be an obstacle as well, such as blenders and adequate pots/pans for recipes that aren’t “one-pot” meals.
  • Major appliances might be absent from their lives or might be inadequate for storage and food preparation.
  • Lots of low-income folks live doubled up (with friends or family members) or in rooming houses where they may be lucky to have one shelf in the fridge for cold storage.
  • Appliances can be unreliable – a cooktop with one working burner, for instance.

3. Distribution of Food

We believe that individuals and families have trouble knowing where to buy fresh local food, in addition to having difficulties getting to these locations. The challenges individuals face can be specific to the area in which they live, be it an urban, suburban or rural environment. Low income individuals might live in areas with restricted access to affordable, healthy/fresh foods.


  • One-stop grocery shopping is easier for low-income individuals because it saves time and gas money.
  • Going to the farmerbs market or a grocery store featuring local foods would require making an additional trip.

Public transportation

  • It is not always adequate or easy to use.
  • Carrying groceries on a bus or subway is difficult, especially with children.
  • It is often inadequate in rural areas.
  • Big cities often have food deserts, where only convenience stores are available for food shopping in low-income areas.
  • Food delivery services can be expensive, if available at all.

4. Lack of Knowledge and Education b Low-Income Individuals

We believe that low-income individuals might lack knowledge on how to prepare fresh food for a variety of reasons, including lack of quality education, inexperience of family members, and popular cultural influences. Individuals often lack:

  • An understanding of the meanings and benefits of fresh, organic, and local food.
  • Awareness of the health benefits of eating fresh food.
  • Confidence in preparing fresh food.
  • Skills in preparing fresh food in fast, easy ways.
  • Knowledge of ways to make produce attractive to children.

5. Cultural Values and Lifestyles

We believe that low-income individuals might lack experience eating meals highlighting fresh food.

  • Eating habits developed during childhood, memories from holidays and other celebratory occasions, and positive, community-centered experiences might have centered on comforts foods made with lard, fat, sugar, as well as processed foods.
  • An individualbs life might be lacking in pleasurable and affirmative food-related experiences. Children attending crowded public schools, for example, are forced to eat lunch hurriedly, in shifts as short as 20 minutes, so that maximum use can be made of cafeteria space.
  • Individuals living in urban and suburban settings might be completely disconnected from the agricultural origins of the food they eat. Never having seen a vegetable, a grain, or a fruit growing on a plant, they might be unaware of the simple form food has in its original state, and the changes it undergoes during processing.
  • We believe that low-income families are accustomed to eating fast food because a great deal of fast food advertising targets low-income families and these restaurants are clustered in low-income communities.
  • Families seeking emergency food assistance often receive boxed, canned, and processed food, which has a longer shelf life and can be more easily transported than fresh food. Families who depend on food pantries to survive long-term financial crises can become accustomed to convenience foods.

6. Disabilities

We believe that individuals with disabilities who take care of themselves, and those who depend upon others to care for them, face even more obstacles to local food access than those faced by the low-income population in general. There is a very high correlation between having a disability and have a low-income.

  • To remain eligible to receive services through Medicaid, individuals are forced to remain at a very low-income level, hindering their ability to purchase fresh food. (source 5)
  • Undiagnosed individuals with mental retardation usually donbt know how to use the store or even the oven. They often rely on microwave and take-out.
  • Diagnosed individuals with mental retardation might receive funding for services and have access to Support Community Living (SCL). SCL is a one-on-one service that teaches, assists and creates skills for individuals with disabilities. The goal of SCL is to work toward specific goals and increase clientbs independent living skills and community development. SCL clients can have goals that help them learn about nutrition and how to cook and shop wisely. However,
  • SCL workers might not be educated in the areas of fresh food, nutrition and cooking.
  • Recipes need to be easy and only a few steps long.
  • Similar challenges are faced by individuals with physical and mental illness and brain injury. These individuals might be eligible for Consumer Directed Attendant Care (CDAC). CDAC workers can grocery shop and prepare meals for clients.
  • However, CDAC workers might not be educated in nutrition and cooking.

7. Preparation and Storage of Food b Social Service Agencies

We believe that the variety of social service agencies which are in a position to assist their low-income client increase their consumption of local and fresh foods often lack the time, funding, experience and education to do so. Examples of the types of agencies and organizations that we believe could help their clients learn more about local and fresh food include: food pantries, neighborhood centers, Lionbs Clubs, churches, homeless and domestic violence shelters, medical clinics, family resource centers, and environmental action groups.

  • Few staff members at social service agencies have the extra time to add the component of local foods to their work.
  • These agencies might not have adequate space, kitchen equipment and utensils with which to prepare fresh food.
  • These agencies might lack the major appliance for the storage, refrigeration and freezing of fresh food.
  • These agencies might lack the extra volunteers to process and store fresh ingredients safely.

8. Fulfillment of Government Nutrition Standards b Agencies & Institutions

We believe that state and federal restrictions on food purchasing can negatively affect the decision to acquire local foods by agencies and institutions that serve food to their clients, such as senior centers and school districts. If government money is used to purchase foods at an institution, it might be required to meet government nutrition standards. Reconfiguring a menu to incorporate local foods and continue to meet these standards can be a burden.

9. Lack of Education b Social Service Agencies

We believe that the knowledge and understanding of local and fresh foods can be limited at all levels with a social service agencybs workforce.

Workers at these agencies might lack the same knowledge of nutrition and lack fresh food preparation skills as the clients do.

Agency administration might not have considered the potential positive relationship between improving their clientsb health through their diet, and improving other aspects of their clientsb lives. In order for agency staff to integrate nutrition and food into their interactions with clients, there must be interest in and commitment from the agenciesb supervisors or board of directors.

10. Lack of Education – General Population

We believe that if the general public understood the obstacles to local food that low-income families face they would support programs and organizations that increase this populationbs access to good, fresh food. We believe that the general public lacks knowledge of:

  • The extent of poverty in Iowa.
  • The causes of poverty.
  • How poverty affects food shopping habits.

This document was prepared as a community service by volunteers. The initiative for the creation of this document came from the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Officebs I Food Initiative, a project to help strengthen the local food network in Southeast Iowa.

Our first version of the bTop Tenb list was presented at a workshop at the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture.



1. 2007 Hunger in Iowa Report by Susan Roberts and Erin Feld (and the 2003 report
2. The Hartford Food System: A Guide to Developing Community Food Programs, Replication Manual put out by World Hunger Year
3. Donbt Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morgan Spurlock
4. Iowans Fit for Life, Active and Eating Smart: Nutrition and Physical Activity by the Iowa Department of Public Health,1, Nutrition and Physical Activity.
5. Eligibility requirements for individuals with disabilities: and
6. The ARC of East Central Iowa
7. Living Well Iowa (run in this area by Keith Ruff through the Evert Conner Center)
8. Retail and Consumer Aspects of the Organic Milk Market by Carolyn Dimitri and Kathryn M. Venezia for the US Dept. of Agriculture, May 2007.
9. Frequently asked questions of the WIC program
10. Are Lower Income Households Willing and Able to Budget for Fruits and Vegetables? by Hayden Stewart and Noel Blisard for the USDA: Economic Research Service, Jan 2008
11. Dynamics of Poverty and Food Sufficiency by David Ribar and Karen Hamrick for the USDA: Economic Research Service, Sept 2003
12. Household Food Security in the United States, 2006 by Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews and Steven Carlson for the USDA: Economic Research Service, November 2007