Let’s talk about food deserts!

Let’s talk about food deserts! July 24, 2013

Have you ever looked at the definition of a food desert?  The USDA tool has changed since I looked at it last, and it’s now multilayered, allowing the user to look at multiple definitions of a “food desert” but the classic definition remains:
1) being “low income” — more than 20% of the population in a census tract being in poverty, or the median census tract income being less than 80% of the median income for the state or metro area (which is really more like the definition of “moderate income”), and
2) being more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (city) or 10 miles (rural areas), where a grocery store is defined as having “at least $2 million in annual sales and contain[ing] all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket, including fresh produce, fresh meat and poultry, dairy, dry and packaged foods, and frozen foods. ”  — see the “documentation” section of the site.

And here are my three major irriatations with this definition:
1)  there is no reason why an area has to have a large grocery store in order to provide food access, or even have all the listed items (what about a small ethnic grocery?  Or a place with only frozen meat/poultry, not fresh?).
2)  the 1 mile vs. 10 miles differentiation between urban and rural areas is quite arbitrary and designed to highlight the issue for urban areas.  A meaningful differentiation would be between those areas with mass transit access and those without, but that would produce the opposite result of more food deserts in suburbs/rural areas than in cities. Likewise, the “low income” requirement doesn’t have any direct connection, except presumably that poor people are less likely to have cars.
3)  ultimately, the issue is not a lack of a convenient grocery store, but the lack of transportation among low income people.  In fact, one of the alternate measures incorporates the percent of population with/without “vehicular access” — but the issue is not one of access to cars at all! 

I would expect that in Germany, such a map would show vast areas of food deserts — small towns and larger cities alike, where large supermarkets are much less common than small stores, often with a small grocery paired with a fruit-and-vegetables shop, a bakery, and a butcher shop.  But you know what?  Germans aren’t set on a car as a necessary component of grocery shopping:  Germans use bikes (potentially with a bike trailer or saddlebags), and Germans use something similar to this shopping/utility cart, which would commonly be taken on streetcars and busses. 

In the American inner city, neither of these appear to exist — one news video on the tragedy of food deserts featured a woman with her groceries in a handful of plastic grocery bags which she struggled to carry along with her on the bus, as a pathetic sight.  And — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me but I imagine are a matter of culture and fear of theft — bikes simply don’t seem to exist among the urban poor in America, let alone bike trailers.

But instead of fixing the fundamental problem of lack of transportation, politicians are busy instead compelling major retailers to open up supermarkets in poor areas, which I suspect are money-losing ventures dependent on tax subsidies or the need for political favor. 

But you know what the truly remarkable thing is?  Looking at this map, there are really very few such “food deserts,” certainly very few in relation to the amount of ink (or pixels) devoted to the topic.

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