Food Deserts, not so delicious

By Hannah Jarman-Miller

The Zupan’s in my neighborhood closed recently. After nearly 20 years of occupying a mixed use private-public space in SE Portland, a design that spurred much of the development on the changing Belmont strip, the grocery store closed its doors, leaving the space vacant with an uncertain future. I felt unmoved, perceiving that I had many other options at my disposal. I couldn’t help but think of the Whole Foods less than a mile away. However, the comings and goings of grocery stores have ramifications much deeper than whether you can still have your pick of preferred produce provider.  A growing body of research suggests that the suburbanization of food retailers in North America in recent decades has contributed to the emergence of urban 'food deserts', or disadvantaged areas of cities with relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food[i].

When you don’t have enough accessible places to buy healthful, affordable food in your neighborhood, such as grocery stores and supermarkets, it contributes to unhealthy diets, which in turn increases risk of chronic disease[ii]. Food deserts constitute a significant mechanism by which our built environment influences our health, and understanding the systemic determinants of food access better prepares us to address the growing environmental inequities in our urban core.

Of course, the issue is more complicated than to say that, by losing Zupan’s, the SE Portland neighborhood is worse off. In fact, it has been proposed that the growth of large chain supermarkets on the outskirts of inner-cities in more affluent areas has forced smaller independent grocery stores to close, thereby creating areas where affordable, healthful food is only accessible to those who have access to transportation[iii]. High competition from these supermarket chains creates a void. These voids disproportionately impact low-income residents who have difficulty affording transportation costs to a supermarket located outside of their immediate vicinity[iv], and whose neighborhoods frequently lack full-service food retailers and farmers’ markets where they can buy healthful, fresh foodsii. In general, barriers to healthful food resources have a disproportionate impact on low income populations.  

 So what can we do to combat food deserts? One strategy is the implementation of community gardens, where communities work together to grow fruits and vegetables on shared land. These gardens can reduce barriers to healthy food associated with transportation and cost, increasing fruit and vegetable availability in food deserts. Beyond that, community gardens can increase social capital and neighborhood engagement, increasing the sense of pride and satisfaction for those that live in the area[v]. Food can drive our sense of place and identity in very powerful ways. The influence that food has on our communities, and ways we can work to improve access for our communities to healthful food resources, will be discussed at the IMCL conference in Santa Fe. For example, Scott Truex, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning/President, Sustainable Communities Institute, Ball State University/Sustainable Communities Institute will be discussing his work, Urban Agriculture as a Catalyst for Place-Based Community Development.

[i] Reisig, V. M. T., & Hobbiss, A. (2000). Food deserts and how to tackle them: a study of one city's approach. Health Education Journal, 59(2), 137-149.

[ii] Beaulac, J., Kristjansson, E., & Cummins, S. (2009). A systematic review of food deserts, 1966-2007. Preventing Chronic Disease, 6(3), A105.

[iii] Guy, C., Clarke, G., & Eyre, H. (2004). Food retail change and the growth of food deserts: a case study of Cardiff. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management32(2), 72-88.

[iv] Walker, R. E., Keane, C. R., & Burke, J. G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & place16(5), 876-884.

[v] Alaimo K, Reischi TM, Allen JO. Community gardening, neighborhood meetings, and social capital. Journal of Community Psychology. 2010;38(4):497-514.