April 27 2008

Urban Areas Becoming Supermarket “Deserts”

By Worker Bee

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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3 thoughts on “Urban Areas Becoming Supermarket “Deserts””

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  1. I really hope city neighborhooods will go back to the model that you still see every now and again in this country – a butcher shop next to a bakery next to a greengrocer next to a cheese shop next to a liquor store next to a general store next to a fish market … well, you get the idea.

    That model is better for communities, since those businesses are almost always owned by local merchants. It keeps more dollars in the community, and because in a small shop you get to know the merchant, the merchant is more accountable for the quality of the stuff he sells. And it’s more fun shopping this way – the shops have individual character. The general store smells of coffee and spices; the fish market displays fish on glittering beds of ice; the butcher cuts your meat to order and might have a few bones for your dog cheap (or free); and the greengrocer’s has beautiful displays of produce.

    Sometimes these areas are composed of several different little storefronts, as in Boston’s North End, and sometimes they are stalls run by individual merchants but housed in the same large building, like Baltimore’s Lexington Market or St. Louis’s Soulard Market. They are always much livelier than a typical suburban supermarket, which, with its glaring fluorescent lights and smell of floor wax, turns shopping into a chore instead of a pleasure.

  2. To add to Migraineur’s thoughts, I’d say you stand a better chance of getting what you want from a smaller local shop. The smaller customer base–unforunate but likely in this day and age–would mean that the owner would be more likely to get what you ask for. So at a greengrocer, you might get different varieties of say, apples or carrots, rather than the standard varieties.

    And this may sound silly, but shopping that way, you could avoid certain shops. Those of us who don’t eat red meat could just avoid the butcher shop and the smell, and the same with the bakery.

  3. I would like more information and research on Supermarket deserts.