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Food Deserts

Areas Without Access to Grocery Stores are Food Deserts

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Grocery Store

A Buenos Aires grocery store. Access to fresh produce and foods is essential for all urban dwellers.

Shelby Ross/Getty Images
Updated December 16, 2012
Food deserts refer to geographic areas where people do not have easy access to food retailers. The concept mostly refers to a deficit of supermarkets or grocers in a neighborhood, so people have to travel a long distance to purchase food, or rely on fast food or convenience stores. It also connects to other barriers to food access such as affordability, and public health concerns such as obesity and related health problems. The term was coined in the UK in the 1990s, drawing from concerns over urban flight, suburban sprawl, and food retailer concentration, and researchers have used it mostly in relation to the UK, the US, and a few other large developed nations.

Vulnerable populations are the most affected by barriers to food access, so food deserts most commonly occur in low income, urban neighborhoods, and disproportionately affect minority populations. People with special needs such as the elderly are also the most affected by food deserts. Many research studies have shown that rich, predominantly white neighborhoods are typically closer to supermarkets than poor neighborhoods, which have fewer and smaller retail outlets. Research on food deserts has also included poor rural areas as well; when a food retailer in a small town goes out of business, that town can be left without a supermarket in convenient proximity.

Food deserts can also refer to ability to access good quality and healthy food, which may connect to high obesity rates in low income and minority neighborhoods. A study by Food Research and Action Center, an American non-profit organization, found that those with annual household income less than $24,000 reported problems accessing affordable fresh fruits and vegetables 2.5 times as frequently than those with incomes between $60,000 and $89,999. As such, the food desert issue has become associated with public health problems. In the United States, First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative to fight childhood obesity called "Let's Move" addresses sky-high American obesity rates, and asserts that one of the biggest factors in childhood obesity is under-access to healthy food options.

Reasons for Food Deserts

Trends post-World War II created conditions that led to food deserts in some urban neighborhoods. As the urban core of cities declined and automobile-centric suburbs flourished, many supermarkets followed those residents moving outside the city. These large supermarkets often replaced smaller, specialized food retailers, which were typically located in downtowns or urban centers. Large supermarkets in the vein of supercenters such as WalMart have found locations in city fringes convenient due to plentiful space and also profitable due to populations with greater purchasing power.

These changes have disproportionately affected low-income residents, who have more limited mobility, less transportation options, and tighter financial constraints, among other factors. Inner city residents are often left with fewer options, sometimes paying more for food than their suburban counterparts and often lacking healthy local produce. Thus, economic and physical barriers in these neighborhoods often shape consumer choices and unhealthy eating practices.

Not a Perfect Metaphor?

While food deserts have become a popular way to refer to food accessibility issues, there are some other factors to consider in the big picture. For instance, there are many factors to food access not related to distance. Despite distance to high quality food, many people are still unable to afford the food they need; thus, physical access does not directly address affordability. Furthermore, proximity to high quality food alone does not necessarily influence consumer choices; people may still choose unhealthy options such as fast food despite physical, and even economic access to better options. Thus while food desert locations often correlate with the same populations that experience the highest levels of obesity and other health problems such as diabetes, the two do not necessarily have a causal relationship.

Food accessibility, needs, and consumer preferences do vary by particular location and individual households. For example, for someone of a particular religion, obtaining culturally appropriate food may be the most important accessibility factor. For disabled people, distance is not the only factor to ensure easy food access; they may also rely on special transportation or assistance to accommodate for physical limitations. So while low income populations are the most vulnerable to food insecurity, food deserts encompass a variety of complex economic, cultural, and geographic factors. Additionally, since cases vary by individual locations and there is no one concrete definition of a food desert, it is difficult to obtain accurate and constructive statistics on them.

Strategies to Address Food Deserts

Government programs exist, such as food stamps that attempt to address affordability for low-income populations. These programs, often controversial, can improve local affordability, but do not as easily address physical access to food retailers, or health issues. Improved public transportation is another strategy to improve access, and ensure that bus lines and other viable transportation options reach underserved neighborhoods.

Initiatives at the community-level have addressed food insecurity through such strategies as food-buying groups and CSAs (community supported agriculture). Neighborhood food-buying groups involve a group of residents pooling money together to buy food in bulk, and splitting up the costs and products locally. This is a slightly more affordable option that addresses physical access, allowing residents to share responsibility for greater convenience. CSAs are a similar initiative, allowing people to order food through local farmers. This allows for healthy, sustainable food options that support local farmers, although it does not necessarily address physical access if the consumer has to pick up their "share" at the farm, or affordability if the consumer has to commit to their share for an entire year.

To address transportation barriers to food access, car-share and car-pooling programs encourage affordability, environmental responsibility, community, and convenience. Urban farms and urban agriculture also allow residents to share in a community that is more involved in food production and distribution. Urban agriculture can bring fresh sustainable produce to undeserved urban neighborhoods. It also allows for educational opportunities for community members to learn about where their food comes from, and local ecosystems.

References:

Food Research and Action Center (2011). A Half-Empty Plate: Fruit and Vegetable Affordability and Access Challenges in America. Retrievable from frac.org (PDF).
Jiao, J., Moudon, A. V., Ulmer, J., Hurvitz, P. M., & Drewnowski, A. (2012). How to Identify Food Deserts: Measuring Physical and Economic Access to Supermarkets in King County, Washington. American Journal Of Public Health, 102(10).
Thomas, B. J. (2010). Food Deserts and the Sociology of Space: Distance to Food Retailers and Food Insecurity in an Urban American Neighborhood. World Academy Of Science, Engineering & Technology, 67 19-28.

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