Monday, 18 July 2011

Diagnosing supermarket deserts

USDA's new Food Desert Locator offers a lot to think about.  At least in U.S. cities, I think the reaction of many viewers will be surprise that food deserts appear so few and far between.  Most poor neighborhoods in most cities do not appear to be food deserts.

For example, here is my home town of Washington, DC.  Even Ward 8, across the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington (in the bottom middle of the map, near the southern point of the DC diamond, north of the Maryland border), has only one fairly small census tract colored in pink.  Ward 8 was highlighted as a problem area in a report from D.C. Hunger Solutions on the "Grocery Gap."

Faced with surprising data, two good responses are: (a) to read the data definitions carefully, and (b) to see for yourself.

(a) The data definition for a "food desert" in USDA's mapping utility is "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store," meaning more than a mile to such a store.

(b) The part about "seeing for yourself" is more fun.  On a business trip to USDA this week (disclosure: some of my funding for research on food economics comes from USDA), I checked out a bike from the super-terrific new Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, and took it on a tour of food retail store fronts.  I was impressed that the Capital Bikeshare kiosks are located all over town, including low-income neighborhoods as well as tourist destinations.

This corner store does not count as a "supermarket or large grocery store" under the USDA definition, and yet I always give these non-chain retailers some thought when I do this type of food retail tour.  I would have mixed feelings if new supermarkets, supported by tax incentives, put out of business these retailers that stuck with a low-income neighborhood even in the toughest years.  Coincidentally, when I passed by on my shiny red rental bike, this corner store had a lovely bright poster advertisement for ... Capital Bikeshare.

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Although I did not visit them on this trip, here are the three larger food retailers in this part of Washington, and the reason why most of Ward 8 did not show up as a food desert on the USDA mapping utility.

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There is no conclusion to this post.  Just material for longer contemplation, while following the current policy debate about food deserts.

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