Food Deserts: Another Way the Deck Is Stacked Against Car-Free Americans

Slate has posted this map to illustrate the concentration of “food deserts,” where large numbers of people don’t have access to fresh food. The USDA considers households more than a mile from a supermarket and without access to a car to be in food deserts, often with only convenience-store junk food for nourishment. In 2009, the agency found 2.3 million of these households. Here, Slate shows the preponderance of those households in Appalachia and the Deep South, and on Indian reservations.

food deserts

Access to healthy food is just one reason to build walkable places with a mix of uses and diverse transportation options. The places on this map are where people have been stranded — how walkable can your neighborhood be if you can’t walk to buy fresh produce? Many of the people identified here are poor and can’t afford cars. Some are elderly or disabled and can’t drive.

The most vulnerable members of our communities are the ones most hurt by transportation policies that keep a singular focus on automobile transportation and ignore those who need other ways to get around. What Slate is calling a food desert, you could also call an unlivable neighborhood, where even residents’ most basic needs — like access to healthy food — are denied.

19 thoughts on Food Deserts: Another Way the Deck Is Stacked Against Car-Free Americans

  1. I bet a lot of people look at these maps and think ‘we need more cars so people can travel to food. That would be unfortunate, since a lot of the answer is in better placement of the food itself. Big box supermarkets with sprawling parking lots are not wise investments for urban areas. A non-transportation way to address a transportation-y issue.

    Would be really interesting to do an analysis of urban walkability (maybe via walkscore or something) and overlay on food desert maps.

  2. I think it would also be interesting to investigate what factors, other than walkability, contribute to this distribution. Even the poorest and least walkable counties in CA appear to outperform most of the country. It may be worthwhile to ask how culture, cuisine, and/or proximity to food production influence these data. Higher resolution data, such as at the census-block level would also be very illuminating.

  3. Remember, this map shows “No Car and No Supermarket”, not just “No Supermarket”. So you have to have a concentration of people who live in an area where you ‘need a car’ as well as inability to afford that car.

    There are plenty of people living in rural (or sprawl) areas all over the West and Midwest that may even be 50+ miles from the nearest supermarket–but they have cars.

  4. I did more localized view of this problem recently. I looked at the inner tier of Prince George’s County Maryland, the more developed part adjacent to Washington, D.C. When I used 1/2 mile (a walkable distance) buffers around supermarkets and international markets, most of the area was outside of the buffers. When I expanded the buffers to 2.5 miles (an easy quick drive) most of the area was then inside the buffers. I attribute this to typical suburban development of the post WW II era, with single use zoning, and everything connected by roads.

    More supermarkets are not the answer. But, with this kind of land use model, where do you put even improved versions of smaller stores?

  5. It would be interesting to see their definition of “supermarket.” Particularly in urban areas, there are small stores that are somewhat higher-level than “convenience stores” but much smaller than what most Americans, conditioned by huge suburban box stores, would think of as “supermarkets.” Is fresh produce the defining feature?

  6. It’s a troubling map, but it understates the urban side of this problem. Cities might contain a relatively low percentage of residents living in food deserts, but there are still a large absolute number of city people without ready access to food.

  7. There’s a huge food desert problem in poor inner cities in the US, even when the streets are relatively walkable. You’re not going to fix the South Bronx’s obesity problem with more walkability or bike paths. You might be able to do something about access to parks in order to encourage more physical activity, but the policies that encourage supermarkets and farmers’ markets to set up in poor neighborhoods are completely orthogonal.

    The one major intersection between urban policy and food policy is farm subsidies. They’re on the one hand a major bone of contention among urbanists who care about money; they also subsidize unhealthy food, especially corn syrup, making it cheaper than it should be.

    Besides, for a dense urban neighborhood, a supermarket per mile is very sparse. In every dense middle- or high-income area in Manhattan, you’ll find supermarkets spaced 5-10 blocks apart, in addition to grocery stores that, unlike in poorer neighborhoods, sell fresh produce.

  8. The USDA study cited in the Slate piece concluded that “Access to a supermarket or grocery is a problem for a small percentage of households.” Specifically, it is a problem for 2-6% of all households in the U.S., depending on the specific metric used. This is not a serious problem.

    Furthermore, the idea that “walkable places with a mix of uses and diverse transportation options” is a realistic or cost-effective way of addressing this small problem makes little sense. I seriously doubt that most people living on Indian reservations or in Appalachia want “walkable places with a mix of uses and diverse transportation options.” The whole point of living in such places is to preserve traditional forms of community and ways of life, which have absolutely nothing to do with “walkable urbanism.”

  9. Big box supermarkets with sprawling parking lots are not wise investments for urban areas.

    Why not? Big box supermarkets offer much lower prices and a much larger selection of produts than small local stores. That’s why they have become so popular. Walmart is now the largest grocery retailer in the United States.

  10. @garyg: Big box supermarkets offer much lower prices and a much larger selection of produts than small local stores.

    Not always the case. Many big box retailers are actually more expensive for given items than smaller stores. I live down the street from a Ralphs that I rarely shop in. Why? Because I can buy my produce, dairy, salad mixes, cooking oils and ‘ethnic’ foods for much cheaper elsewhere. They also don’t sell certain items, like corn tortillas without additives, parsnips, or fennel. And don’t get me started on Walmart; they’re a great place to shop for groceries if everything you eat comes out of a can or a box.

  11. You people in the States should buy and ride more bicycles 🙂

    In Holland we find it weird if people go shopping nearby and go by car.

  12. It’s hard to ride a bicycle when most roads are designed for cars — no sidewalk or shoulder, bikes have to cross busy traffic lanes. Drivers (most of them in SUVs and trucks) don’t notice bikes, and cyclists often ignore traffic signals and stop signs.

    For about 50 years we’ve been building isolated housing developments and isolated shopping areas, connected by high speed roads. for most people the only way to a grocery is along a busy highway. There are no small grocery stores in most places, and fewer small packages that are easy to carry on a bike — everything is super-sized. Even if a small grocery was built, most people are motivated by grocery prices over any other factors, and would not shop there. There are people who live in their cars because they can’t afford both a home and transportation — how crazy is that?

    I suppose the first step is education, zoning reform, maybe incentives for walkable development. It’s going to take a total paradigm shift.

  13. The solution is to build more small grocery stores. Big-box stores are hardly convenient even with a car. They are a long drive away, which uses a lot of gas. It is exhausting to walk across the store, past a bunch of non-food items that you don’t want to buy, to find the items you are looking for (Loblaws in Canada is particularly bad for this). The lines at the checkout lines are often long. The selection isn’t really that much better than the small stores, because the big stores just stock 100s of every item. Also the prices are really not that much lower than the smaller stores, it is rarely economical to shop at the big store if a smaller one is available given the cost of gas and time (even at minimum wage) unless you are buying a LOT of food. I think that if major chains got involved in building smaller stores, people would be willing to pay a bit more for convenience.

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