InTrans / Jan 30, 2015
The journey of bananas: Crossing the great ‘food desert’
posted on January 30, 2015
In our last article of this series, you learned how bananas are transported from Costa Rica to your local grocer in “The journey of bananas: fruitful exploration.” This article explores how consumers go about getting healthy food (such as a banana) and how far they have to go to get it.
Did you know that bananas are important foods that impact a person’s health as part of a balanced diet? Bananas are rich in potassium, vitamins, and fiber. This article is not just about how one gets bananas from the store, but looks at the much larger issue of “food access.” Food access means the ability to retrieve food easily from the grocery store, farmers market, supermarket, or other food store location. Here we will question how transportation, equity, and the food environment play a part in food access.
Where is the food?
Think of a time you needed to, let’s say, get a few bananas from the store. How far did you have to travel to get to the grocery store? And also, how do you get there? Did you drive? Walk? Ride your bike? If you haven’t really given much thought about how you get to your own supermarket—which may be located within a mile from your home by car—then you may be interested in how the 23.5 million people in the US that live further than one mile to a supermarket reach the store.
In this article we will explore how some of these 23.5 million people are constrained by the amount of resources they have to reach grocery stores or supermarkets, making the question of “how do you get to the store” a bit complicated.
Any person in an urban area that lives more than one mile from a grocery store or supermarket is said to live in a “food desert.” Now this may not be much of a concern for the majority of people that own vehicles or are in the middle to upper socio-economic classes. How much a family makes each year impacts questions like, “how do you get to the store?” in many ways. For one, families that live with less income are constrained in how they get food, so food store locations can make a difference.
Why does the proximity to grocery stores matter?
Many studies have indicated one’s health is directly impacted by their ability to access healthy foods. For example, one study found that adults living in Mississippi without a supermarket were 23 percent less likely to meet the recommended amount of fruit and vegetable consumption. But for every additional supermarket, produce consumption increased by 32 percent! Further, researchers in Indianapolis, Indiana, found that adding a new grocery store in a neighborhood led to an average weight loss of three pounds for adults in that community. 1
Not only is it costly to live farther away from food store locations, but it can also lead to alternative food location preferences, such as searching out convenience stores, fast food locations, or other unhealthy alternatives. Fast food restaurants do not offer fresh fruits and vegetables for sale like a supermarket or grocery store. Instead they offer food that has a lot of energy (high in calories) and low in nutrients (such as calcium, vitamin C, etc.). Convenience stores often have little in the way of fresh foods and are often much more expensive than grocery stores. A study has found that convenience stores sell products for 11 percent more than grocery stores. That makes your bunch of bananas that cost $2.00 at the supermarket cost you $2.22 at a convenience store. This may not seem like a lot, but imagine if your total bill at your grocery store, let’s say $100, was purchased at a convenience store. Now you would pay $111 for the same $100 spent at the grocery store. 2
Lest we forget that food retailers are businesses. Research has pointed to the fact that food store locations are dependent on the income and racial structure of neighborhoods. For instance, low-income neighborhoods have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest ones. 3 The fact that food retailers are businesses that need to make a profit is problematic because when it comes to solving the issues related to hunger and healthy food diets in low-income neighborhoods, food retailers see those neighborhoods as less likely to provide a strong profit margin as compared to other affluent neighborhoods.
Planning a way forward
So how do we combine the issues related to transportation, equity, and the larger food environment to solve an issue like food deserts in low-income neighborhoods?
The job of urban planners are to find solutions to social problems in communities, such as reducing or eliminating food deserts. Urban planners work with community members to understand what they need in their own communities.
For example, an urban planner worked with a low-income neighborhood in downtown Des Moines, Iowa that had become a food desert. The problem was that a private food retailer located into the neighborhood before asking what the community actually wanted. This store ended up failing in the mid-2000s because it did not meet the needs and wants of the neighborhood’s residents in terms of price or food choices. The next store that located into this specific neighborhood in 2013, and which is still there today, was brought into the neighborhood through a partnership with Des Moines residents. Along with a full grocery store, it also includes a center for job training and education. This grocery store offers a lot of ethnic food items, which caters to several nearby diverse neighborhoods.
The urban planner helped in this partnership to bring in this second, but successful, store. They helped build conversations among different groups to reach a common agreement on what the residents wanted to see in their neighborhood.
Now this neighborhood has a grocery store in walking distance, which greatly increases residents’ ability to access healthy foods.
Why does this matter?
Food stores are often located outside of low-income neighborhoods, and therefore transportation becomes a barrier and hinders those residents from accessing resources such as food. Solutions such as new food store locations in previous food desert neighborhoods, or even accessible and affordable public transportation options, are keys to a strong and healthy community.
- The Food Trust, and Policy Link. 2010. The Grocery Gap: Who has Access to Healthy Foods and Why it Matters. Available at: http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/grocerygap.original.pdf.
- Broda, Christian, Ephraim Leibtag, and David E. Weinstein. 2009. The Role of Prices in Measuring the Poor’s Living Standards. Journal of Economic Perspectives 23(2).
- PolicyLink. 2010. Equitable Development Toolkit: Access to Healthy Food. Available at: http://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/access-to-healthy-food_0.pdf.
By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer