The objective of the present study was to evaluate intakes and serum levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, and related compounds in a cohort of maternal–infant pairs in the Midwestern USA in relation to measures of health disparities. Concentrations of carotenoids and tocopherols in maternal serum were measured using HPLC and measures of socio-economic status, including food security and food desert residence, were obtained in 180 mothers upon admission to a Midwestern Academic Medical Center labour and delivery unit. The Kruskal–Wallis and independent-samples t tests were used to compare measures between groups; logistic regression models were used to adjust for relevant confounders. P < 0·05 was considered statistically significant. The odds of vitamin A insufficiency/deficiency were 2·17 times higher for non-whites when compared with whites (95 % CI 1·16, 4·05; P = 0·01) after adjustment for relevant confounders. Similarly, the odds of being vitamin E deficient were 3·52 times higher for non-whites (95 % CI 1·51, 8·10; P = 0·003). Those with public health insurance had lower serum lutein concentrations compared with those with private health insurance (P = 0·05), and living in a food desert was associated with lower serum concentrations of β-carotene (P = 0·02), after adjustment for confounders. Subjects with low/marginal food security had higher serum levels of lutein and β-cryptoxanthin compared with those with high food security (P = 0·004 and 0·02 for lutein and β-cryptoxanthin). Diet quality may be a public health concern in economically disadvantaged populations of industrialised societies leading to nutritional disadvantages as well.