Friday, November 16, 2007

Grocery stores in poor neighborhoods

Economics webloggers such as Tyler Cowen and Mark Thoma are covering Nathan Berg's argument that low-income neighborhoods lack good grocery stores because grocery executives don't happen to know those neighborhoods well.

But, before we move on to diagnosis, can we ask first just how ill the patient is? Some of the best research I know on this topic comes from various USDA surveys of Food Stamp Program participants and low-income nonparticipants. For example, Ohls and colleagues (.pdf) reported in 1999 that one third of low-income respondents shop within a mile of their home and another third within one to four miles. Ninety percent use supermarkets as their major source for food shopping. Almost two thirds reported that their round trip to a grocery store required less than 30 minutes of travel time, and another quarter required between 30 minutes and an hour. In low-income neighborhoods of the East Coast cities I know best, food retail has improved since this report came out.

How can we square the USDA data on the moderately agreeable retail experience of a typical food stamp participant or low-income family with the widespread concern about food deserts in low-income urban neighborhoods? Consider first the low-income urban food desert you know best (I'll hold Anacostia in DC, or eastern Baltimore, or South Bronx in my thoughts). Then, ask yourself what fraction of low income people in the corresponding metro area live there.

For example, here's a map of DC from USDA's Economic Research Service around 2000. Consider not just Anacostia, but also the low-income neighborhoods with good retail. Dark green is highest poverty, and dots are grocery stores. Likewise, fiddle around with this wonderful interactive GIS map from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger last year.

Think both about what particular neighborhoods have the worst retail (it's pretty bad), and also about what fraction of low-income New Yorkers probably have pretty good retail access. I don't recommend writing off the most desolate neighborhoods, but fixing retail in those neighborhoods should be part of broader anti-poverty strategies. Certainly, a low-income New Yorker has other things to worry about besides this!

Good empirical work on the scale of the problem is important for clear thinking about policy remedies. I worry, for example, about tax giveaways to supermarket chains, at least without some hard consideration of other policy options -- including those that give a greater role to healthy food sales from smaller store formats.


Anonymous said...

"Good empirical work on the scale of the problem is important for clear thinking about policy remedies."

Google Maps seems to have a database of supermarkets. I don't know where they got it, but if that were given the once over and cleaned up a bit and combined with a zip code based dataset of Census demographic data, it seems like you could get a close-enough-for-jazz first pass on something like this.

You should enlist some computer science or math students to help you.

Kei said...

The lack of access to nutritious foods in low-income communities is, I think, the invisible 300-lb gorilla in the local food movement. Local, organic food is just really damn expensive in comparison to what's usually available in the grocery store (assuming there *is* a grocery store around). No one seems to have a good solution to this problem other than farm bill reform, and it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon.

jc said...

Anyone interested in making their own google maps for free and on-the-fly (no coding knowledge necessary) should check out

Bix said...

Great post!
My experience is Philadelphia. I can say, from personal experience, that crime, guns, and violence are an enormous deterrent to getting food in the house. You just do not go out of the house unless you're commuting to work. Food shopping is whatever you pick up on the way home from work, at the corner grocery. Whatever you can carry with one hand. A bag of chips weighs hardly anything.

For me, reducing violence would be one of the most effective ways of dealing with the problem ... a problem that kei articulated perfectly.

Big supermarkets just don't get built in crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if they did, they could only realistically market to people within an 8-block range.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with your observation that we do not necessarily need large supermarket chains being subsidized to go into lower-income communities. However, there are some good models out there for creating a healthier environment in economically depressed areas. In my blog, I mentioned the Pathmark in the Central Ward, which was orchestrated by New Communities Corporation. This Pathmark has been in place for over a decade, and I understand it has been successful in delivering more variety and quality to the residents.

The fundamental problem we face in getting poorer people to eat healthier is that the ingredients of the less-healthy food are heavily subsidized -- grains and sugar -- whereas fruits and vegetables do not tend to have as much subsidy attached to them. Because of the lack of affordable alternatives, poor people are often forced to choose foods that give them the largest number of calories at the lowest cost. The unhealthy food wins hands-down, at least today.