Skip to main content

The ‘Silent Tsunami’ Food Crisis in America

Even in an over-retailed America, there are still heavily populated areas that lack that basic service provider of urban life, a grocery store.

Last month, the World Bank's new president, Robert B. Zoellick, warned of a growing global food crisis with the potential for more than 100 million people to lapse into hunger and malnutrition, and more than 30 countries at risk of social unrest. The streets of Bangladesh, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Egypt have witnessed food-related riots, and Haiti followed suit last month, as Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz detailed for

Indeed, a United Nations representative recently said the upsurge in food prices constituted a "silent tsunami," which would be especially devastating for developing nations.

Now, new research suggests that the number of low-income neighborhoods that lack ready access to grocery stores could lead to a breakdown of food security and nutrition for hundreds of thousands of people — not in a Third World country but in major urban areas of American cities.

In a paper to be published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Behavioural and Healthcare Research, economists Nathan Berg and James Murdoch of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, examined the locations of grocery stores across Dallas County and categorized neighborhoods in relation to the number of grocery stores within a 1-mile radius.

Using data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the U.S. Census, the researchers mapped the demographics of areas with many grocery stores as opposed to those with few.

"No-grocery-store neighborhoods are predominantly low-income and concentrated in southern Dallas," the researchers said. "And African-American neighborhoods have significantly fewer grocery stores."

Previous studies have linked poor access to reasonably priced, nutritious food to a failure to meet dietary recommendations. As the study authors wrote: "Lack of access to a grocery store typically means lack of access to fresh vegetables, fruits and meats. For those who buy food primarily from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, more than convenience is at stake. Eating healthy is notoriously difficult when one is surrounded by only unhealthy food alternatives. Eating healthy is especially difficult for low-income consumers because healthy food is significantly more expensive than the unhealthy foods that offer more calories per dollar spent."

Berg and Murdoch suggest that the disparities in access to nutritious food ensure that 400,000 of Dallas County's low-income residents face very real challenges in securing healthy diets for their families, with all the attendant repercussions for health, behavior and society. And the researchers believe their findings in Dallas County could well be extrapolated across the United States.

Other studies and decades of press reports suggest that's true, and while a new store serving the urban poor is a staple of the business pages, low-income neighborhoods remain underserved.

The researchers suggest that grocery stores should actually thrive in low-income neighborhoods for several reasons: low-income residents spend a higher fraction of their income on essentials like food; lower rents and real estate prices reduce costs for stores; there's a greater labor supply in high-unemployment neighborhoods; and the lack of nearby competition all but guarantees customers.

"New policy approaches are required to bring rapid improvements in food security," the researchers said. "Given the importance of healthy diets, perhaps a rethinking of the institutional framework that determines food supply in the U.S. should be more prominent among issues analyzed in economics and policy-related sciences."

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.