5 Things the USDA Learned From Its First National Survey of Food Access

How much does transportation limit people's access to food? A new UDSA study takes a look at the issue. Photo: Wikipedia
How much does the transportation system limit people’s access to food? Photo: Wikipedia

The links between transportation, development patterns, and people’s access to healthy food are under increasing scrutiny from policy makers trying to address America’s obesity epidemic.

Here’s some new data that sheds light on Americans’ access to fresh food. The USDA recently completed the first “National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey,” which delves into where people buy their food and how they get there.

Here are the major findings:

Most people drive their own car to the grocery, but lower-income households are more likely to rely on transit or a ride

Across all income groups, 88 percent of Americans drive the family car to pick up the groceries.

However, people who use government food assistance like WIC or SNAP — as well as people who don’t participate but qualify based on income guidelines — were more like to rely on transit, walking, biking, or a ride from a friend or family member:

Graph: USDA
Graph: USDA

Among people who collect SNAP benefits, 68 use their own car to drive to the store, compared to 95 percent of households that earn too much to qualify for SNAP.

Among families who indicate some degree of “food insecurity,” or difficulty acquiring sufficient food to sustain good health, only 70 percent drive their own car to the grocery. For families considered “food secure,” the figure was much higher: 91 percent.

To access food, low-income households rely more on rides from friends than on transit, walking, or biking.

Even among people who don’t own a car, the survey revealed a high level of dependence on driving to get groceries. Among households receiving SNAP benefits, 19 percent relied on a ride in someone else’s car to get groceries, compared to 13 percent who rely on transit, biking, or walking.

USDA doesn’t speculate about why this may be. But it could indicate a few things: development patterns that spread grocery stores too far apart; transportation systems that don’t provide good access via transit, biking, or walking; and the nature of carrying groceries, especially if you do lots of shopping in one trip. It’s probably a combination of all three.

People don’t shop at the closest store

Graph: USDA
Graph: USDA

In a somewhat surprising finding, people don’t shop at the closest grocery store, by and large. The average household traveled 3.79 miles to their primary grocery, even though the closest store was 2.14 miles way. This was true, with little variation, across all income groups. USDA says this indicates shoppers are sensitive to price, quality, and selection in addition to proximity.

People who walk, bike, or ride transit travel shorter distances

Not surprisingly, people who get food via walking, biking, or transit travel shorter distances to get to the store. Their average grocery trip is just under a mile, compared to about four miles for those who use their own vehicles. This is a reflection of development patterns: People who don’t drive to shop for groceries live, on average, about half a mile from a store, compared to 2.27 miles for people who rely on their own cars.

Most people shop at “supercenters” or supermarkets

Almost 90 percent of shoppers reported their primary grocery store is a supercenter — like a Walmart or Costco — or a supermarket, with a roughly evenly split between the two. Another 5 percent reported they do their food shopping at “other retailers” like dollar stores. Among food insecure households, that figure was higher, at 9 percent, but slightly lower for households receiving SNAP benefits.

  • Greg A

    damn! i know it’s just an aside and this data doesn’t really support it, but it *looks* like people who are eligible for SNAP are able to decline it if they bike, because they saved so much money versus their car-bound peers. would be a great future study.

  • stepthrough

    Dang now I want to design a study for this!

  • In other words, most Americans don’t live in walkable neighborhoods. This isn’t exactly earth shattering news.

    It would be really interesting to see how this stacks up against other countries.

  • davistrain

    Discussions like this remind me of the woman whose car broke down, and she had to take the bus to the grocery store. She learned very quickly to take ice cream off her shopping list until she could get her car repaired.

  • AndreL

    Many people need a car, even a clunker, to get work. Especially more erratic work common on lower-income households. If they already have a car because they need one to get any income at all, or even try to get jobs, then the marginal cost of driving to a cheaper supercenter, maybe en-route to/from a workplace is rather low.

  • Valentina

    I completely agree with you. It’s really difficult for me to imagine how my life would be in those specially boring neighbourhoods.

    Show Auto Reviews

  • theqin

    It is actually surprising to me that even 9% of food secure people don’t drive to the grocery store, I would have estimated it at under 5%.

  • bikecar101.com

    Over the last few years, we have gotten rid of one car while transitioning over to either walking or bicycling to the grocery store along with other errands. What is fascinating is that old habits change as a function of new environmental inputs. Instead of traveling farther distances to get food, choose from the selection available within reach. We see the problem as one of the “awareness” of shopping locally or by walking/biking. People simply are not aware that they do not need to depend on a car (for shopping/running errands) as much as they think. Once the mindset changes, then the habits change! Thanks for the article.

  • EDG

    Nothing surprising

  • AndreL

    But you artificially limited yourself to a smaller selection. As long as it is your choice, not an imposition, it is fine. Maybe you don’t mind changing brands or having less options for each item by buying in a smaller store closer to home, many people would rather have what they want, instead, even if it is available further away.

    This is why “block-based” business were decimated to begin with.

  • Jame

    I am surprised people go so far to get groceries, the average is nearly 4 miles? Wow! My grocery radius is 2 miles most of the time, though I do make special trips to the further stores sometimes.

    When I started biking, I was surprised how doable it was to grocery shop.

  • Jonathan Krall

    AndreL: “you artificially limited yourself to a smaller selection”

    It’s not as simple as that. People who shop by car often choose stores based on which are easy to visit by car. When I made the switch to grocery shopping by bike, it became easier to fit more local shops into my routine because I didn’t have to deal with parking a car at each stop.

    Also, bikecar101’s point about awareness isn’t trivial. Just as car-based living raises awareness of shops that have free parking or are on one’s commute, the decision to shop by bike motivates learning about local options. Every decision both opens and closes doors.

  • AndreL

    I agree. That is, ultimately, the beauty of online shopping with same-day delivery.

  • bikecar101.com

    Well said Jonathan. Thank you for the comment.

  • TN

    From my own experience living in lower income neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t think that the issue is “awareness.”

    The reality is that poorer neighborhoods simply have few stores. “Food desert” is a term that’s now common. In West Oakland where I lived for several years had no major grocery store at all. There were parts of East Oakland with no close access either. There were corner liquor stores which also had some groceries. The prices were high for very mediocre quality and very limited choices in fresh foods. Food/health advocates complain that the poor don’t eat enough healthy food. But it was more difficult for those in that area to buy healthier food since there were no places to shop.

    It makes sense for people on limited budgets to travel out of their neighborhoods to shop at bigger and cheaper stores with more variety. If we assume that a car costs $0.56 per mile to run and that the store is 5 miles away, it would take a savings of groceries of $11.20 per trip to make it worthwhile for the shopper. This is very plausible. If you also share a ride, the cost of driving is shared whereas the savings separately accrue to all the shoppers.

    While many middle class communities are ambivalent about the opening of “Walmart” style big box stores, there is a lot less negativity about it in poorer neighborhoods because these stores benefit local shoppers. The shoppers had to travel further to shop before these supermarkets opened.

  • ohnonononono

    The grocery industry pushes spend per transaction as a measure of success. They don’t want people walking in and buying a couple small items and walking out. That’s not worth wasting a cashier’s time. Higher spending per transaction enables the store to cut costs.

    Supermarkets intentionally create incentives toward buying more. (Notice that convenience stores, which fill the niche for small purchases, charge higher prices.) The modern supermarket wants every transaction to fill a huge shopping cart, which necessitates a car.

    The business model of the supermarket industry doesn’t support active transportation. The more amenable move seems to be the shift toward grocery delivery, which was very common back before mass car ownership. You used to get your milk delivered. Maybe your butcher and your favorite brewer delivered. Grocery stores that offer delivery today are typically charging less for that than it’d cost to take a taxi home from the store, and for large orders the delivery charges can often be offset by the cheaper prices vs. buying smaller quantities at smaller convenience outlets. I think that’s the future of food access in cities.

  • bikecar101.com

    In that situation, there exists a ‘food desert’ (which is the ‘awareness’) and the solution to find food requires traveling farther distances. That is a difficult situation and there needs to be healthier choices (as highlighted in a recent study by RAND thinktank) in all income neighborhoods.

    According to a quick calculation with the numbers you provided — 5 miles each direction = 10 miles total and $0.56/mile would only cost you $5.60 to go to the store? This result makes ridesharing even more attractive.


Dramatic Shift Away From Driving Continues in California

In the first major travel survey since 2009, evidence grows that Americans are changing their transportation habits rapidly. The news from Caltrans’ 2012 California Household Travel Survey is dramatic: Californians are making far more trips by walking, bicycling, and transit than they were in 2000. The survey found the percentage of trips by these modes […]

In Defense of the Corner Market

Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest. GOOD Magazine, Dateline, NBC and countless others have weighed in on the apparent market failure that causes grocery stores to shun cities like Detroit and Cleveland like a bad case of head lice. This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this […]

How Montgomery County’s Bus Rapid Transit Can Alleviate Suburban Poverty

Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside DC, is getting ready to do something that could set a precedent for American suburbs — build a bus rapid transit network. The 82-mile system should offer a huge boost in job access, especially for people without cars. Pete Tomao at Greater Greater Washington is especially interested in how the effort might help reduce economic inequality within […]