In Northeast Washington, in a census tract just two miles east of the U.S. Capitol building, 61 percent of residents are both low-income and have little access to healthy food options. The area does not have a single supermarket. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls this area inside the nation’s capital a “food desert.”
The neighborhood is marked off in pink in an online “food desert locator map” unveiled this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Much of the surrounding area is pink. So, too, is a massive chunk of New Mexico, several patches of Los Angeles and just about the entire southern tip of Chicago. The mapping tool leverages census data to identify low-income tracts where at least one-third of the population (or at minimum 500 people) lives more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store (or more than 10 miles in rural areas).
According to the USDA, 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the country — containing 13.5 million people — meet this definition. Almost all of these people — 82 percent of them — live in urban areas where convenience stores, or even liquor stores, offer the best bet for dinner.
These neighborhoods are a byproduct, in many ways, of the country’s shifting demographics into the suburbs since World War II and the consolidating food system that has elbowed out local chains in favor of big-box stores with produce sections (and big-box stores that shy from pro-union inner cities). In the 1990s, in particular, Walmarts began stocking groceries. It quickly became the country’s largest food seller, prompting a wave of national consolidation by smaller regional chains.
“The term ‘food desert’ kind of implies it's a natural phenomenon,” said Phil Howard, an assistant professor of community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies at Michigan State University, who has done local mapping work of such communities in Lansing, Mich. “What’s really been happening in some areas described as ‘food deserts’ is that they used to have supermarkets or chain grocery stores, and those stores have been shut down as they've been opening new stores in the suburbs. It's not a natural phenomenon at all.”
For that reason, Howard doesn’t particularly like the term, but he’s happy to see the federal government measuring and attracting attention to the policy problem (and doing so through his preferred platform of visually gripping data).
“A desert implies either there's no food, or there is food, and the reality is a lot more complicated,” Howard said. “Often, people in [these] areas have access to a lot of food-like substances that are not very healthy. Or they may have access to a few types of fresh fruit and vegetables but ones that are easy to store and transport, like bananas. They’re going to have a hard time getting access to other things like fresh spinach.”
Measuring access to food by proximity to a supermarket is also a blunt tool, he cautions. That definition fails to catch food sources like bodegas that often sell high-quality fresh produce. And a family’s access to food is further complicated by transportation options that aren’t factored into USDA’s model (in contrast, they were considered in this study).
As a starting point, though, USDA’s map acknowledges that most Americans now get their food from a Giant, or a Jewel, or a Walmart — and that, in the absence of the square footage and purchasing power of such national chains, corner stores are more likely to stock low-cost, high-profit nonperishables than fresh produce.
In Michigan, Howard and colleague Kirk Goldsberry studied not only the availability of local grocery stores but also what was on the shelves there.
“The diversity of soft drinks relative to the produce offered was what really surprised me — Coke, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke,” Howard said. In 94 retailers — just counting beverages that were ready to consume in the refrigerator cases — the researchers found 1,000 different varieties of soft drinks sold under 200 brands.
All that soda speaks to the vicious cycle that goes into creating food deserts.
“When we were talking to the retailers at some of the places where we were doing inventories,” Howard said, “they would make claims that ‘people just wouldn't buy it if I offered some healthy stuff.’ But it's a cycle where less profitable items get removed, people are not used to having those available, and then they change their purchasing patterns.”
The USDA’s goal in providing the map is to create a source of information for others, not necessarily the USDA, to act upon. It is a tool, said Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, that "will help policymakers, community planners, researchers and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents."
In Michigan, a 2008 state law created tax incentives for retailers to move into underserved areas, or to improve the selection of food in existing stores. That could be a model policy proposal for other communities following the USDA’s efforts to illustrate the problem.
“When you bring fresh produce into an area where it's been lost, you have to make sure it’s not low-quality produce, cardboard tasting apples that people are not going to choose over a soft drink or something else that's been engineered to appeal to our taste buds,” Howard said. “The fruits and vegetables that often taste the best are the most perishable, so they’re the most difficult to get into stores that aren't used to dealing with fresh produce.”