Structural Barriers to Local Food Part II: Urban Food Deserts

Crown heights street

It’s simple logic that local food is not only an individual’s choice, unaffected by structural and economic factors. If there are no farmers’ markets or local CSAs, local food is hard to get. If grocery stores are few and poorly stocked, fresh produce of any kind, let alone organic or local, will be expensive and hard to get.

As Blanchard notes, food deserts are most common in inner-city urban neighborhoods and rural areas. That rural areas should be food deserts is not hard to understand; in any small town far from a metropolitan center it’s not shocking that grocery stores might be far away, expensive, poorly stocked, or all three.

Understanding how an inner-city urban neighborhood could be a food deserts is more complicated. Distance and retailer size, two of the key rubrics used to define a rural food desert, are less useful in urban environments. In an urban environment, the 10 mile distance test is largely inapplicable, as there is certainly a grocery within 10 miles. More importantly, a much greater proportion of urban dwellers are likely to rely solely on public transportation, particularly the elderly, poor and near-poor. This significantly changes the idea of what a ‘nearby’ grocery is. One that is two miles away might be inaccessible, if there isn’t a frequent or convenient bus route. Even then, carrying groceries back to an apartment in bags or a cart is significantly more difficult than just placing them in the back seat and driving home. Furthermore, the idea of what a grocery store is undergoes a significant shift in the urban environment. The store is unlikely to be an enormous Stop and Shop or Food Lion, with 50 or more employees, the kind counted as a supermarket in Blanchard’s study. It’s much more likely that the local grocery will be a small corner store, with a greatly limited selection, particularly of perishables like milk and produce.


Neighborhoods with limited access to full-service grocery stores also have a high incidence of obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Recent NYC Department of Health studies (available on their website) estimate that while obesity rates among children living in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy are comparable to NYC and the nation as a whole, the prevalence of obesity among teenager and adults living in those neighborhoods is greater than NYC as a whole. More than 9 of 10 adults in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy eat less than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Obesity rates in Harlem and the South Bronx are also higher than in the city as a whole.

Bed-Stuy and Bushwick also have very few grocery stores. 82% of food stores in Bed-Stuy and Buswhwick are bodegas, while only 6% are supermarkets. This strongly affects what groceries are available: only 33% of bodegas carry reduced-fat milk, only 28% carry apples, oranges and bananas, and only 10% carry any kind of leafy green. Those aren’t good percentages. The restaurant percentages are similar: 75% of restaurants only sell take-out, mostly pizza, Chinese, and Latin American food. 13% of the restaurants are national fast-food chains.

Interestingly, this lack of healthy foods in bodegas is not restricted to all bodegas. Another study by the Department of Health compares bodegas in the Upper East Side to those in East and Central Harlem. Bodegas in the Upper East Side have a 57% chance of having skim milk, compared to 33% of Central and East Harlem bodegas, and a 20% chance of having leafy green vegetables, as opposed to a 2% chance in Central Harlem and 4% chance in East Harlem.


While bodegas make up about two-thirds of the food stores in East and Central Harlem, they make up only one-third in the Upper East Side, half the proportion. In contrast, 19% of the food stores in the Upper East Side are supermarkets, more than double the 8% of East and Central Harlem. Unsurprisingly, the NYC Department of Public Health considers the Upper East Side a site of much greater healthy food availability than East and Central Harlem.


The urban food desert is certainly not limited to New York. A 2006 briefing paper by the food-access advocacy group Hartford Food System shows that supermarkets space per capita is by far the greatest in average-income suburban areas, one third greater than is found in rural areas and double the amount found in urban areas. According to their data, 50 Connecticut town don’t have a supermarket at all.

CT town without grocerys

This correlation between poor access to healthy food, obestity-related illnesses, poverty and race is not limited to New York. Consultant Mari Gallagher has conducted a number of studies of food deserts in Chicago, Detroit and Louisville, KY.

Increasing access to healthy food is a tricky thing, full of overtones of central planning and moral superiority. This ‘we know best’ implication is particularly loaded, at least in New York, where the areas with the least access to healthy food also tend to be low-income and non-white. There are a number of initiatives which show promise, including increasing the numbers of ‘green carts’ in NYC neighborhoods with poor access to fruits and vegetables, a rise in city CSAs, and an initiative in Hartford to identify retailers that sell affordable, healthy food. These efforts, coming from disparate sources, promise greater attention to the problem of making healthy food, and local and organic food, both available and affordable for more people. Organic and local food shouldn’t be just for the food snob elite, and thinking about how and where people get their food is a crucial part of making the local food impulse into a broad-based movement.


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