Abstract Background Food access is a global issue, and for this reason, a wealth of studies are dedicated to understanding the location of food deserts and the benefits of urban gardens. However, few studies have linked these two strands of research together to analyze whether urban gardening activity may be a step forward in addressing issues of access for food desert residents. Methods The Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area is used as a case to demonstrate the utility of spatial optimization models for siting urban gardens near food deserts and on vacant land. The locations of urban gardens are derived from a list obtained from the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension office at the University of Arizona which were geo located and aggregated to Census tracts. Census tracts were then assigned to one of three categories: tracts that contain a garden, tracts that are immediately adjacent to a tract with a garden, and all other non-garden/non-adjacent census tracts. Analysis of variance is first used to ascertain whether there are statistical differences in the demographic, socio-economic, and land use profiles of these three categories of tracts. A maximal covering spatial optimization model is then used to identify potential locations for future gardening activities. A constraint of these models is that gardens be located on vacant land, which is a growing problem in rapidly urbanizing environments worldwide. Results The spatial analysis of garden locations reveals that they are centrally located in tracts with good food access. Thus, the current distribution of gardens does not provide an alternative food source to occupants of food deserts. The maximal covering spatial optimization model reveals that gardens could be sited in alternative locations to better serve food desert residents. In fact, 53 gardens may be located to cover 96.4% of all food deserts. This is an improvement over the current distribution of gardens where 68 active garden sites provide coverage to a scant 8.4% of food desert residents. Conclusion People in rapidly urbanizing environments around the globe suffer from poor food access. Rapid rates of urbanization also present an unused vacant land problem in cities around the globe. This paper highlights how spatial optimization models can be used to improve healthy food access for food desert residents, which is a critical first step in ameliorating the health problems associated with lack of healthy food access including heart disease and obesity.