Urban Areas Becoming Supermarket “Deserts”

A study published in the International Journal of Health Geographics suggests that as more and more supermarkets leave cities to set up shop (literally!) in the suburbs, urban areas are increasingly at risk of becoming “food deserts.”

For the study, researchers at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, used geographic mapping techniques to map the locations of supermarkets in 1961 and 2005 and then analyzed the results based on neighborhood location, socioeconomic characteristics and access to public transportation.

Based on this analysis, the researchers determined that fewer than 20% of residents living in the “urban core” of London have access to supermarkets today, down from more than 75% who had easy access in 1961. They also note that spatial disparities in access to supermarkets have increased significantly, with residents of inner city neighborhoods with the lowest socioeconomic characteristics experiencing the poorest access to supermarkets.

Although this study was conducted in Canada and focuses only on supermarkets in London, Ontario, the researchers note that similar trends have been observed in Northern America as well as the United Kingdom.

So what’s causing the exodus? The researchers hypothesize that increased urban development as well as the constant need for space could partially be to blame, but note that in the end, it all comes down to dollars. You see, supermarkets need to be located in affluent areas in order to be successful and have actually begun targeting their product lines (i.e. catering to those searching for “one-stop-shopping”) in order to meet the needs of the suburban market.

Now, if you’re wondering what us city dwellers do, you’re pretty much in the same position as urban planners and public health policy experts. Why would they get involved? Well, the bottom line is that access to food – and produce in particular – is directly associated with health. In fact, a report by the New York City Department of Health has suggested that neighborhoods with the least access to fresh produce have greater rates of obesity, which in turn increases the likelihood of chronic disease, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

But before you get all bogged down and begin to think that the poor city mice are starving, consider this: many large cities have taken steps to increase access to fresh produce. In New York City, for example, lawmakers recently passed legislation to add 1,000 more “green carts,” that is, vendor stands serving only fruits and vegetables, to the city’s existing fleet of 4,000. While these carts have traditionally been clustered on the city’s wealthy Upper East Side, this time, the permits require the carts to be set up in low-income and otherwise under served neighborhoods, where access to fresh produce is often scarce.

Elsewhere, many cities are jumping on the farmers’ market bandwagon. According to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of farmers’ markets nationwide increased more than 7 percent from 4,093 in 2005 to 4,385 in 2006. As a result of this increase, total sales volumes for farmers’ markets increased from an estimated $888 million in 2000 to about $1 billion in 2005, with 25% of farmers participating in a recent survey reporting that they relied on farmers’ markets as their sole source of farm-based income. Furthermore, the USDA has created programs such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program to both support the farmers and ensure that low-income residents have access to fresh produce.

So while the study does support the theory that supermarkets are declining in urban areas (and what they do stock isn’t worth showing off in a fruit bowl!), it would seem that city residents have a number of new options for obtaining produce.

Don’t have any farmers’ markets in your area? Visit this site for information on who to contact and what to do about adding one in your town!

kansasexplorer, Steve Crane Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

It’s My Neighbors Fault I’m Fat

The Poor Body

High-Density Fast Food Joints = High-Fat Fast Food Eaters

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