This clever Geographic Information System (GIS) utility for New York City allows you to create customized maps of restaurants, food retailers, community markets, food stamp offices, and so forth, with your choice of color-coded overlays for poverty rates or population density. It was created by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
One use of the utility, whose maps may be read and manipulated with a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat reader, is to assess the extent of "food deserts" -- or neighborhoods without adequate supermarkets. It is clear that, in New York City, much depends on the quality of the mid-sized retailers. One would read the policy implications of these maps entirely differently depending on whether the mid-sized retailers are good or bad. Please feel free to comment, or even to send me photographs, of some of these retailers, especially in the three low-income neighborhoods detailed in the Coalition's report. Of the three, I only know the Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan from visits to friends, and was quite impressed with the retail there, but in fact the report acknowledges good things as well as shortcomings of the community food security environment there.
A 1999 USDA report (summary and .pdf) suggests that a majority -- but not all -- low-income people in a nationally representative survey have reasonably good access to retail. How can we square this report with the impression we have of terrible food deserts? One answer is that when we contemplate food deserts, our mind immediately turns to the worst such neighborhoods we know, such as the South Bronx neighborhood in the Coalition's report. Yet, most people -- and even most low-income people -- have better access to food retail than one would have living in the center point of that neighborhood. Using a mark on a pencil, representing a half-mile walk, try for yourself to estimate what fraction of the low-income population even in New York City lives close to a full-sized supermarket.