Tag Archives: food desert

NYC Food Deserts: Talk and Action

The folks over at Slow Food USA recently highlighted this blog in their recent post about the troubling incidence of food deserts nationwide. You can see my previous writing on both rural and urban food deserts here.

They mentioned two articles from last week’s New York Times that I’ve been meaning to talk about. The first, The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need of Replenishment, has an awkward title but is a good article. Instead of just chronicling the distressing lack of supermarkets in areas that need them desperately, talks about why supermarkets are conspicuously absent in neighborhoods such as East Harlem. The article, a by-product of a recent study by the New York City Department of City Planning, shows some shocking numbers:

According to the food workers union, only 550 decently sized supermarkets — each occupying at least 10,000 square feet — remain in the city. [The study] estimated that as many as three million New Yorkers live in what are considered high-need neighborhoods — communities characterized by not enough supermarkets and too many health problems. Within those dense, urban areas, the study estimated that 750,000 people live more than five blocks from a grocery or supermarket.

“Many people in low-income neighborhoods are spending their food budget at discount stores or pharmacies where there is no fresh produce,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director. “In our study, a significant percentage of them reported that in the day before our survey, they had not eaten fresh fruit or vegetables. Not one. That really is a health crisis in the city.”

The study, which was released last Friday, found that there is enough need in the city to support another 100 groceries or supermarkets.

That’s a lot of new grocery stores – nearly 20% more. That’s also a lot of people who are un- or under-served by neighborhood grocery stores, more than a third of New York city’s population, according to the 2000 census. That’s an unacceptably high number. And it’s a safe bet that it’s the elderly, poor, and people of color who are the ones left holding the short end of the stick. Even if you’re mobile and well off it’s a pain to get to a supermarket that might be several miles away, but it’s even more challenging if you can’t walk far, or have to take the bus, or have to work so many hours that it’s very difficult to get to a far-away store before it closes. All of those factors make frequent grocery shopping, and hence eating perishable things, like spinach or fresh tomatoes, much less likely.

It’s unsurprising, really, that the lack of supermarkets and high rates of obesity and diabetes would be correlated, and particularly concentrated in minority and poor neighborhoods.

There’s a summary of the study, titled Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage here, and a slide show with more detailed analysis here. All of the above maps were taken from the slide show presentation of the study.

The second article, equally clumsily titled City Farmers’ Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market, discusses several inner-city farmers and gardeners in New York who grow enough to both provide themselves and sell the surplus.

The city’s cultivators are a varied lot. The high school students at the Added Value community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, last year supplied Italian arugula, Asian greens and heirloom tomatoes to three restaurants, a community-supported agriculture buying club and two farmers’ markets.

In the South Bronx a group of gardens called La Familia Verde started a farmers’ market in 2003 to sell surpluses of herbs like papalo and the Caribbean green callaloo.

At a less established operation, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s Bed-Stuy Farm, mission staff members began growing produce in the vacant lot behind their food pantry in 2004, and ended up with a surplus last year. So they enlisted their teenage volunteers to run a sidewalk farm stand selling collards, tomatoes and figs; this year they plan to open a full farmers’ market.

How did this happen? Opportunity and assistance. The farmers and gardeners wanted to grow, and other groups pitched in to help make it possible. But the real drive, the factor that made these small plots a success, was their community. Its hard to farm in a city, but it is possible, and it can work well, as the story of Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes shows.

The Wilkses’ return to farming began in 1990 when their daughter planted a watermelon in their backyard. Before long, Mrs. Wilks, an administrator in the city’s Department of Education, was digging in the yard after work. Once their ambition outgrew their yard, she and Mr. Wilks, a city surveyor, along with other gardening neighbors, received permission to use a vacant lot across from a garment factory at the end of their block.

They cleared it of trash and tested its soil with help from GreenThumb, a Parks Department gardening program. They found traces of lead, so to ensure their food’s safety, they built raised beds of compost. (Heavy metals are common contaminants in city soil because of vehicle exhaust and remnants of old construction. Some studies have found that such ground can be cultivated as long as the pH is kept neutral.)

They wanted their crops to be organic, a commitment they shared with many other farmers in this grimy landscape. They planted some marigolds to deter squirrels; they have not had rat problems, which can plague urban gardens; and they abandoned crops, like corn, that could attract rodents. They put up fences to thwart other pests — thieves and vandals — and posted signs to let people know that this was a garden and no longer a dump.

There were also benefits to farming in the city. The Wilkses took advantage of city composting programs, trucking home decomposed leaves from the Starrett City development in Brooklyn and ZooDoo from the Bronx Zoo’s manure composting program. They got free seedlings from GreenThumb and took courses on growing and selling food from the City Farms project at the local nonprofit Just Food.

“The city really has been good to us,” Mrs. Wilkes said. “All of the property we work on, it’s city property.”

The Wilkses now cultivate plots at four sites in East New York, paying as little as $2 a bed (usually 4 feet by 8 feet) in addition to modest membership fees. Last year the couple sold $3,116 in produce at a market run by the community group East New York Farms, more than any of their neighbors.

Clearly it will take more than a couple of small plots in formerly-abandoned lots to turn things around in terms of access to fruits and vegetables. But the example of the Wilkses and the other people growing appealing and nutritious produce for their neighbors, and working across all sorts of groups, offers a hopeful start.

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.

Structural Barriers to Local Food Part I: Rural Food Deserts

Earlier this week I talked about the problems of framing the local and organic food movements as an individual moral choice. As Mark Winne’s work in Hartford, Connecticut demonstrates, awareness of and desire for local and organic food is not limited to the Whole Foods shopper buying expensive cheese, but is common among all racial, ethic and socio-economic groups. Most people want to be able to choose organic and local food for themselves and their families, for a host of reasons.

The crucial difference between those who buy organic and local and those who do not, but would like to, is access. Barriers to access can include both time and money. However, the most important limiting factor is a clear lack of grocery stores and other retailers within a reasonable distance who carry affordable, healthful products and produce.

This lack of retail sources for healthy, local or organic food is one of the biggest sticking points for the spread of the organic and local foods movements, and is related to our national crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Time can be reallocated or shortcuts in food preparation found, buying in bulk and on sale can trim costs, and evolution in food stamps and WIC are beginning to support eating produce. But none of that will help if there’s nowhere to buy fresh produce, let alone organic or local fruits and vegetables.

A “food desert” is an area where residents have limited access to supermarkets and supercenters where a variety of groceries and produce can be found. Some researchers draw a distinction between “food deserts”, where all of the population has low access to supermarkets, and “low-access” areas, where more than half the population has limited access to supermarkets.

The term “limited access” in this case is generally defined as being over 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. Obviously, this limitation will vary in severity depending on the area in question. However, it is clear that distance from grocery stores will most strongly affect low income individuals, those with disabilities and the elderly, who are far more likely to be reliant on public transportation. Low-access areas and food deserts in the United States are shockingly widespread, and are found in both urban and rural areas.

A study by Troy Blanchard, Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and Lois Wright Morton, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University, quantifies this problem.

Low-access map

National Food desert map

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