Food for Thought: Defining Food Deserts and Understanding What Access to Food Means

July 25, 2012

The recent discussion in popular media regarding the ties between obesity and food deserts, food swamps, and inequitable food access is helping both food system practitioners and researchers refine their definitions for, ideas about, and ways to communicate the importance of food access.

As a contentious New York Times article stated – a neighborhood in Camden, NJ that exhibits high rates of poverty seems to have no shortage of food establishments, including several supermarkets. And people who want fresh food can “access” it. However, this scene of abundance does not accurately depict the real scenario in the City of Camden or other places – urban, suburban and rural – throughout the country.

“Food desert” is a recent term that many food system advocates, public health professionals, and government officials have used as a way to describe a geographic area (neighborhood, city, or larger rural area) that has inequitable access to supermarkets (or healthy, fresh food), and which is exacerbating disparate health outcomes, such as high rates of obesity or incidences of diabetes. (USDA’s definition of food deserts is available here). The term is visual and memorable, but oversimplifies and possibly ignores several systemic problems – the slim profitability of food businesses, human choices and behaviors, and socioeconomic and racial equity, among many others.  Not to mention that it portrays a negative image of a desert as a barren wasteland, which is quite to the contrary; deserts are amazing ecosystems that support many different animals, plants, and human cultures.

Regardless of income, few people shop at the nearest store

Marketing data (PDF) show that people rarely shop at the nearest supermarket. A multi-year study in Seattle and King County, Washington that looked at various chains of supermarkets and a common “market basket” of items identified price of food as a motivator for where people of all incomes shopped. Some people shopped at stores with lower prices, while others purposefully shopped at stores with higher prices (and possibly better quality, more choices, or different shopping environments). A USDA report on food deserts noted that while Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants lived within 1.8 miles of the nearest supermarket, the one they actually shopped at was 4.9 miles away.

To choose is to be human

Someone once explained to me that everyone basically wants the same thing, regardless of our diverse backgrounds, cultural differences, and socioeconomic status. We all want a nice and safe place to live. We all want good schools for our kids. We all want to feel good. We all want to shop in welcoming environments and have lots of choices. For all that we are alike, people live in very different situations and make decisions based on different motivators or happenstance.

The retail outlet environment – whether it’s a chain supermarket, an independent grocery store, a corner store, or a farmers market – is where people make most of their food decisions. While a large food industry has long evaluated (PDF) consumer choice and preferences, coupons and incentives, and the layout and placement of products in a grocery aisle, now several food access studies are looking at how the retail environment can support local food production or healthier consumer choices.

Penn State is the lead on a multi-state, multi-year project that is evaluating many parts of the northeast regional food system. Part of that study is to better understand how grocers make decisions about what fresh produce to carry, how more locally or regionally produced food may end up in the produce aisle, and how might northeast farmers meet the anticipated increased demand from the wholesale/grocery market.

Albert Einstein Healthcare Network’s Center for Urban Health Policy and Research worked with the PA/NJ grocery chain Fresh Grocer to pilot a fresh produce incentive intervention. Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education is also working with Fresh Grocer to better understand the impact of “point of sale” nutrition education – such as touting the health benefits of drinking skim or 1% milk over whole market at the refrigerated case. And The Food Trust has long maintained that equitable food access and improved nutritional health requires comprehensive interventions, combining solutions that serve both the consumer and the marketplace.

Defining food access

Geographic access or proximity to a supermarket does not mean there is equitable access to healthy food. Food access means a lot of things that are not necessarily geographically-based. Access to healthy food means ability to pay for and affordability of healthy foods. Access means having cooking skills and cooking equipment. Access means having time to shop for and prepare healthy meals.

If you are the person in your household who does the weekly grocery shopping, the regular trip to the farmers market, or the daily “can-you-stop-after-work-to-pick-up-this-or-that,” you probably have a whole slew of places to shop at depending on what food items you’re getting, how much time you have, or which store you’ll pass on your way home.

Depending on my day or week, sometimes a speedy trip to a store I know by heart, but is occasionally out of a few things, is all that is standing between work, dinner, and relaxation. On rare occasions, I enjoy spending two or three hours getting lost in a big store and finding everything I could possibly want for the next few months. After a long winter, the farmers market on Saturday mornings suddenly appears as a standing appointment in my calendar. Sometimes I may find that I have a luxurious weekend that revolves around trying out new recipes or indulging in a seasonal treat like tomatoes in July. And still other days, all I have time for and/or crave is pizza from the shop down the street.

Despite the similarities all of us may share in our dietary requirements and food shopping routines, many of us have many more choices – from where we shop to how we get there, and from how much we spend to what products are available in that given store or market – than our neighbors or fellow New Jerseyans. For those that worry about the encroaching food police, equitable food access is the antithesis, providing more choices at different price points in different retail environments to more people. The freedom to choose what one eats may be the most compelling reason for public policymakers, philanthropists, and the general public to care about food deserts and food swamps and all the places in between.

Alison Hastings of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and DVRPC partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.

Image: City Green