What are food deserts?
Food deserts can be best described as areas where people have limited access to healthy food. Impoverished neighborhoods and communities are often lacking healthful foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables. This is usually due to a lack of shops and supermarkets in the areas that provide whole foods. Instead, the people rely heavily on convenient stores that only sell processed goods and imperishable foods, full of sugar and fats.
Rural areas in the U.S. can be vast and distances to the nearest supermarket or farmer’s market, where fresh food is sold, can be large. Not everyone in rural areas has the means to travel regularly to these supermarkets. They will stock up on canned, dried and frozen food instead of buying fresh fruits and vegetables, or they buy in rural corner shops, where the same processed imperishable foods are sold.
Urban areas have food deserts as well. Distance is usually not the main factor here, but the price of fresh food is too high for people in low-income neighborhoods, who are then more likely to buy cheap non-nutritious foods. If a head of organic lettuce has the same price as two packs of hotdogs and you have a family to feed, it is an easy choice to make. For the family on a tight budget it often comes down to: how many calories can I buy today? Nutrition isn’t a top priority.
Another, but potentially less critical factor in urban areas could be the shift in working habits. People who work a late shift may not be able to shop at nearby supermarkets. Some may even choose not to go to a supermarket at night due to safety concerns. They do not want to cross a large parking lot or walk along a dark street, so instead do most of their grocery shopping at a convenience store, or simply pick up dinner at a fast food chain.
How did food deserts develop?
There are few clear answers as to why areas become food deserts and why supermarket chains abandon an area or never open a store in another. At first glance it seems that there is a hole in the market and this should be attractive for businesses in a free market where demand and supply rule. However, crime, security problems, poverty or lack of economic development can all scare away potential investors.
Another obstacle might lie with deed restrictions. When a supermarket moves to a location near the original location it can use a deed restriction to prevent another supermarket from opening in the abandoned space. This way, the business can more effectively take its clients with them and keep competition away. The new supermarket is at a better location and can sell goods at higher prices. It will become inaccessible to the poorest people, either because of the distance or the price. Supermarkets such as Safeway and Walmart have used this tactic in many U.S. locations, leaving hundreds of abandoned market places behind.
Another cause can be seen in rural U.K., where village life has changed. More single households and women working outside the house means there is more money to spend for some, but also less time for cooking from scratch. These households buy cars and do their grocery shopping at supermarkets in towns where they work. The decrease in demand has forced small shops to close. Local banks also disappear when most banking is done online and public transportation is declining. Meanwhile, threats of Salmonella, BSE and Foot and Mouth disease have ruined the remaining local shops. Between 1950 and 2000, the U.K. has lost more than 90% of their local shops in villages. The elderly and poor in the villages are left without basic supplies and without daily bus services.
How are food deserts determined?
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes a food desert database based on census tracts (a basic census unit about the size of an urban neighborhood). They determine whether a particular tract is in a food desert based on two variables: 1) accessibility to grocery stores and 2) income. Accessibility is low wherever there are a “significant” number of residents within a census tract further than 1 mile from a grocery store if located in an urban area, and more than 10 miles from a grocery store if located in a rural area. Low income census tracts are those with poverty rates of 20% or higher or have a median family income less than 80% of the median family income for that state or metropolitan area. The USDA’s interactive food desert map can be found here.
Consequences of food deserts
Not being able to buy groceries at a supermarket or farmer’s market has direct consequences for the consumer. First, they are not able to buy fresh and whole foods, since local shops with less turnover cannot afford to throw away large quantities of fresh food and instead stock up on imperishable and processed items, which are less nutritious. Secondly, people with dietary restrictions, such as diabetes or intolerance to gluten or lactose, have a very limited choice of products. And thirdly, the healthy food available in local shops is often sold at a much higher price than in the supermarkets, putting it beyond the means of low-income families.
It has been suggested that inaccessibility to nutritious food in food deserts results in a range of health problems for the low-income residents of that area. Studies have long shown that ethnic minorities and low-income populations suffer from higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related conditions. There is also a strong link between access to healthy food and obesity.
However, in cities in the U.K. and the U.S., where supermarkets were brought into a food desert, case studies found that consumption habits barely changed after the new stores opened. There was no lasting change in the nutritional value of residents’ purchases; they did not eat more fruits and vegetables. Obesity rates in the vicinity of newly opened supermarkets did not change either. This could suggest that health problems in food deserts are related to the demand instead of the supply of foods. A change in diet spurred by better education and food awareness would likely do more to treat the underlying cause of poor nutrition in low-wealth areas.
One study in the U.K. concluded that the perception of healthy food had improved for people in food deserts where a new supermarket had opened. They consumed less sugar and solid fat even if they did not buy their groceries at this new supermarket, suggesting that the key to solving health problems in food deserts lie in heightening awareness. The dialogue around food issues that were started by the opening of the new store and the newly gained accessibility of fresh and whole foods may have had a greater impact than the actual opening of the store itself.
In the U.S., cities have started to create community gardens and urban farms. These may not be a perfect substitution to supermarkets, but they do offer enhanced accessibility to healthy food and create jobs. Most importantly, however, the effort initiated a dialogue and generated awareness of the link between diet and health issues.
- Wrigley, Neil (2002) Deprivation, Diet and Food Retail Access: Findings from the Leeds ‘Food Deserts’ Study
- Handbury, Jessie (2016) Is the Focus on Food Deserts Fruitless? Retail Access and Food Purchases Across the Socioeconomic Spectrum
- Kliff, Sarah (2012) Will Philadelphia’s experiment in eradicating ‘food deserts’ work?
- Smith, Cheryl (2012) Turning Food Desert into an Oasis
- Sifferlin, Alexandra (2015) TIME. The Unexpected Way Fixing Food Deserts Changes Diets
- Bowman, Jeremy (2012) Food Deserts: Where Have All the Inner-City Grocery Stores Gone?