by Marion Nestle
Jul 14 2009

Food deserts: systematic analyses

Food deserts must be the hot new topic.  USDA researchers have produced a major analysis of “food deserts,” the term used to describe low-income areas with poor access to food.   According to the USDA, only about 4% of the U.S. population lives more than a mile from a supermarket but there isn’t enough research to say whether access is inadequate in areas of limited access.  Oh?  Maybe if the researchers had talked to people in that situation?

The report is full of statistics on poverty in the United States (check out the map of areas in the U.S. where 40% of the population lives on incomes below 200% of the poverty line).  A good part of the report focuses on use of food for community development.   A lot of the country could use some.  The USDA might consider adding some qualitative, interview-based research to its portfolio.

And the National Academies has a report out on the effects of food deserts on public health (scroll down to read it online for free).  The bottom line?  More research needed.

Well, yes, but why do I think this situation needs fixing much more than it needs further research?  How about asking people who live in food deserts what it might mean to them to have a supermarket within walking distance.  Or am I missing some key point here?

[Posted from Fairbanks]

August 6 update: thanks to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy for producing a report on programs that have more or less successfully introduced healthier foods into small stores in the middle of food deserts.  The report gives guidelines on how to do this.

  • Wendy Richman

    Two weeks ago, we moved from a home approximately 1 mile from a supermarket to a home approximately 10 miles (on country roads) from one. I made an effort from day 1 to plan our meals out ahead of time and be more thorough about my shopping list, and I’m already reaping the benefits: a fully stocked pantry, ingredients I think about instead of grabbing mindlessly (because I used to be able to try something out and go back to the store if I didn’t like it), and greater variety in meals. Of course, this move also means that we can’t eat meals out nearly as much, which is also a very positive change. But I actually feel that, aside from the inconvenience of not being able to run to the store for some eggs, this move will make us better, more thoughtful eaters.

  • Michele

    I live in a neighborhood that’s almost a food desert but not quite. Maybe you’d call it a middle-class food desert: lettuce and strawberries are within reasonable walking distance, but I would have to travel quite considerably to buy a piece of non-processed cheese, say, or a squid.

    And I do. Every weekend, my boyfriend and I travel 30-45 minutes, on foot and by bus, to get to the closest good grocery store. I stock up on food for the entire week, which means, as Wendy mentions above, that my purchases are coherent and my meals planned out. We return by taxi, which is an unavoidable extravagance for a couple with no car and eight shopping bags’ worth of perishables. But it pays for itself in the money we save packing lunches and not eating out.

    The weekly trip is kind of tedious, but I do it because good food is non-negotiable for me: I grew up in a food-loving family and went to culinary school. Obviously, not everyone shares my values or experience. But that’s just my point: these studies always seem to leave out the cultural aspects of the so-called “food deserts,” analyzing–and blaming–supply without ever clearly defining demand. The way we choose eat is so tied up with cultural and even emotional factors that to reduce diet to a mere factor of immediate environment is profoundly dehumanizing.

  • Marion, thanks for writing about this. I started to read the report this past week and a few things stood out to me. First, as you mentioned, the report continually mentioned that more research was needed. I haven’t reached the end of the report yet to see how they intend to proceed with more extensive research, but I wonder if making more phone calls will give them actual results. Secondly, as the report states, only 4% of the country lives in food deserts. This is a bit of an encouragement to me as I would have assumed these results to be higher. But, availability of “healthy food” doesn’t mean that people are eating or know how to eat the healthy food that is available. The convenience stores might have vegetables available but the culture of quick, overly-processed foods is a hard thing to break out of.

    Wendy and Michele make excellent points regarding the need to plan meals and grocery trips to ensure their families health. This is the type of things that I am hoping to be a part of community education. I’ll be interested to read The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts. Thanks for that link.

  • robert

    Missing point: inner city poverty accounts for lots of poverty, but one mile is a long way in a city. Especially since there are closer, easier options that are worse (corner stores and fast food), and the grocery stores themselves are not the suburban panaceas found elsewhere. Even something expensive like Whole Foods in Manhattan is an overrun chaotic experience that has half hour long check out lines.

  • Here in Kansas City we have the “doughnut effect” — the poorer, older city ringed about with expansive (and expensive) suburbs, both on the Kansas and Missouri sides. The suburbs get the lion’s share of growth, new infrastructure, good grocery stores, and other healthier retail options, while the older parts of town are generally left to rot. After a long time, we’ve finally gotten a local company to open a lovely grocery store in the center of downtown, but there are still vast residential areas with nowhere to do food shopping except at overpriced and poorly-stocked (for healthy, whole foods) corner stores, liquor/convenience stores, etc. And, of course, fast-food chains. This situation is exacerbated by KC’s horribly inefficient bus system (to the extent that it even exists, and it’s encountering severe budget cuts), which makes it all the more difficult for inner-city folks to trek out to the better grocery stores and get their purchases home in one piece.

    That said, Kansas City is experience a real awakening with regard to seeking out ways to use available land (vacant lots, corporate campuses, church and school grounds, etc.) to help our residents grow their own healthy food, and inroads are being made toward teaching folks (or reminding them) what to do with it once it’s harvested. The general feeling is that if the retail grocery outlets won’t come to these neighborhoods, the residents will quit wasting their time traveling to and spending money at the inconveniently-located stores and just grow for themselves. It’s beautifying our neighborhoods, enriching our schools, creating community by gardening together, and helping people replace their lawns with productive plants. Additionally, KC is host to seven (!) *organic* farmers’ markets. And the KCCUA just pulled off an incredibly successful Urban Farms and Gardens Tour showcasing 31 urban farms, and community and school gardens serving KC. So we’ve got our problems, but there’s hope yet!

    Local organizations helping to re-create and maintain KC’s food security and foodshed:
    Kansas City Food Circle (
    KC CSA Coalition (
    KC Center for Urban Agriculture (
    Growing Growers KC (

    **Disclaimer: I’m on the coordinating committee of the first organization, and the director of the second. 🙂

  • I would second what Robert had to say about inner city poverty accounting for a huge portion of the problem. At one point during college in the late 90’s I lived in the Bronx (and in Belmont, no less, the “Little Italy” of the Bronx) but I was constantly looking for healthy food to eat. The only options were corner bodegas or fast food restaurants. Supermarkets closed at 6PM, and they didn’t even have anything worth buying. Since these places actually have “supermarkets” nearby they wouldn’t fall into the data that this study quantifies, but from personal experience I can say otherwise.

  • Janet Camp

    Just because someone lives near a “supermarket” doesn’t mean that healthy food is to be obtained. Other than the produce section, there isn’t much worth eating in the average supermarket. What “health” foods they stock are priced higher than Whole “Paycheck” and conversely, Whole Foods is full of organic junk food.

    I think the answer lies in education and accessibility to those foods that contribute to healthful living in ways described by “season” above in St. Louis/Kansas City. The first two commenters stories are commendable, but I wonder if they realize that poor people do not have the ability to stock up on food and, sadly, often have little knowledge of nutrition and food preparation. Here in Milwaukee we have GROWING POWER, run by Will Allen (who recently won a MacArthur Genius Award for his efforts growing sustainable food in the “inner” city. He purchased and revived the last working farm in Milwaukee and supplies fresh produce to an underserved area as well as high end restaurants and the local coop. In addition to the veggies, they raise fish in tanks, produce fertilizer from compost (tons of it with the help of the local newspaper and coffee shops) and worms. They do subscriptions for produce very cheaply and by the week so that they are affordable and I’m pretty sure that they donate a lot as well for those who can’t afford even the “affordable”. That’s always a loaded term.

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  • It’s nice to see that some commenters are making special pilgrimages and growing their own food, but most people work hard all day, come home exhausted, and take the path of least resistance. When I lived in food deserts in Brooklyn and Boston, getting fresh food was a huge hassle for me, and I ended up living on pizza bagels and take-out. Now I live in a small city with two supermarkets nearby, and although I do most of my shopping in a single weekly trip, I appreciate being able to get a gallon of milk when I need it. In fact, it was a nonnegotiable criterion when we were choosing a place to buy a house: We had to have a grocery store within walking distance.

    Cities should encourage developers to put supermarkets in underserved areas. Also, it’s long past time to move away from the type of zoning that completely separates residential from commercial properties; a grocery store in a residential neighborhood is a real asset.

    And here’s a fairly simple solution: In my city, a fruit and vegetable vendor sets up shop three days a week outside the local YMCA. The produce is not organic or local, but it is cheap and good quality and, most important, conveniently located. People stroll out on their lunch hour and come back snacking on cherries or grapes, or pick up something for dinner. The Y gets a cut of the proceeds, the vendor sells out most days, and everyone around eats well.

  • I became interested in food deserts when I lived in a low income neighborhood in Adelaide, Australia, which happened to be the focus of a paper on that very topic by John Coveney at Flinders University.
    What Wendy fails to consider, and Michelle begins to hit on, is how poverty is a profound magnifier of the food desert, and saying things like “plan meals ahead of time” puts the onus on the individual rather than addressing this as a societal problem.
    Off the top of my head I can think of the following reasons why people on low incomes are more affected by food deserts than those with higher incomes:
    1) Lack of transportation. Michelle hits on this, but when one has no car, one is limited to what one can carry while walking or taking a bus, so “stocking up” is difficult. Cabs are an unaffordable luxury for the poor.
    2) Lack of money. It is also difficult to “stock up” when you live paycheck to paycheck, so you only get what you can afford at the time.
    3) Lack of time. Many of the working poor also work long hours which precludes tedious trips to a larger store, so they must use the closest option which might be a convenience store where prices are likely much higher and options less healthy.
    4) Lack of storage space. Often, people do not have adequate storage space to “stock up” which means they need to shop a few times a week, which makes longer trips to larger stores even less likely.
    Furthermore, I think the 4% figure is probably looking at this problem through rose-colored glasses. I haven’t looked at the research yet, but I’m curious to see if it addresses prices, because even though there might be a store with a good selection of fresh food within a half-mile, if the prices are too high, it doesn’t do anyone any good.
    Certainly some qualitative research would be helpful and I would bet that the issues I’ve listed above, plus many others would shed light on the problem. Marion, if you know of any efforts to do a qualitative study in Northern California where I am now, I would love to help with the research.

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