food_desert-620x400By Katherine Pearson, Senior Manager for Accessibility Rights

The concept of food deserts isn’t something new, but rarely do people acknowledge the disproportionate effect they have on people with disabilities, particularly those who also have lower incomes. Food deserts are geographic areas, often reported by neighborhood, that do not include accessibility to healthy food options such as grocery stores or farmers’ markets. For those living in these underserved areas, convenience stores and/or fast-food restaurants are often the only food sources available. As long as food deserts remain a reality, the disparate impact they have on vulnerable populations like low-income people with disabilities will need our attention.

Almost half of those living in food deserts are living on low income, making the ability to purchase food outside their neighborhood that much more difficult to obtain (limited transportation options, financial resources, and time, etc.). The USDA has termed this specific type of food desert LILA (low-income, low-access). Of those households, 37 percent have at least one working-age adult who is unable to work due to his/her disability. Furthermore, if that household does not have anyone in the workforce, then they experienced the highest rate of very low food security among all people with low incomes (29 percent).

Since proper meal planning and grocery shopping is already a challenge in these neighborhoods, doing so with a disability – especially a physical disability – makes this daily task even more daunting. Just this week, a person with a disability called the Equal Rights Center with the sole complaint of wanting to live closer to more stores and restaurants. Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. Take Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, DC, for example (also known as East-of-the-river).  In 1999, Ward 7 opened its first sit-down restaurant – the fast-food chain Denny’s. Since then, a few restaurants have opened and closed, but only three exist today. Before 2010, Ward 8 only had one sit-down restaurant, but now there are six. While opportunities are expanding, for low-income people living in communities like East-of-the-river in Washington, DC, and especially those who also have disabilities, those few restaurants are the most practical options for them. That is why it is so important for restaurants to be ADA compliant – they may be the only restaurants able to serve low-income people with disabilities in that area.

Understanding that food deserts and disability are fundamentally linked, what can we do about it? Over the last decade, the Equal Rights Center has partnered with restaurants like Panera, Wings-to-go, Potbelly, Cosi, Pret A Manger and Subway to ensure that their restaurants are accessible for people with disabilities, which increases their overall access to food. The ERC has helped our corporate partners bring their existing locations up to code by co-developing ADA surveys which identify barriers to access that need to be remedied; reviewing their policies regarding reasonable accommodation requests and complaint procedures; assisting with updating store site selection plans in order to choose more accessible buildings when expanding or relocating; and aiding in the selection of fixtures and furnishings to ensure barrier-free seating and tables. When stores take these steps, not only are they are guaranteeing that people with disabilities are able to enjoy their restaurants equally and fully, they are providing another means of accessing food in these limited income, limited access communities.

People with disabilities need to be able to rely on their neighborhood restaurants to be accessible. If you have been unable to shop somewhere because it is inaccessible, that’s discrimination, and we would like to help. The ERC offers education and outreach to both consumers and store owners regarding the law and its requirements. If you believe that you’ve been discriminated against, please email:


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