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Studies Show the Connection Between Travel Times to Food Stores and Public Health
Urban farms, such as Earthworks in Detroit are one way to improve food access in neighborhoods without grocery stores.

Urban farms, such as Earthworks in Detroit, are one way to improve food access in neighborhoods without grocery stores.

Generally, in the United States larger grocery store chains supply a variety of fresh food at lower costs, while independent grocers, bodegas and smaller stores have less selection and higher operating costs and prices.  Such stores tend to have a smaller margin of profit and slower turnover in sales, making it harder for them to purchase a variety of fresh vegetables.  Detroit, a city of nearly one million people and 143 square miles, lacks a single grocery store chain. In many cities, suburban and rural areas of the U.S., large chains and grocery stores can be inaccessible to large portions of the population.  Extensive studies have documented food deserts and related public health concerns, linking inaccessibility of fresh food to geographic areas with concentrated poverty, low-income or minority populations.

These communities typically have low rates of car ownership and stores that are difficult to reach via public transportation or walking.  Most of the studies we reviewed considered a store poorly accessible if residents had to walk more than a half mile or ride a bus line that comes at limited times.  Shopping becomes burdensome, costly, time-consuming and less likely to happen on a regular basis if access is difficult. A lack of grocery stores is one reason low-income people and people of color are more likely to have diet-related diseases. A report called “The Grocery Gap” cited a multi-state study that found that people with access to supermarkets or grocery stores have the lowest rates of obesity and overweight and those without access to supermarkets have the highest rates of such diet-related diseases.

Carla Kaiser, senior manager of Community Partnerships at the hunger organization City Harvest has been working on food access in low-income communities for about six years. “The barriers to healthy food are not just about price,” she says. “A common theme is transportation. Since healthy, affordable food is not commonly available in every community, people need to travel outside of their neighborhood just to get basic food to feed their family. For many, this means two buses and a taxi ride back with groceries. Just getting to the food people want is costly in terms of time and money.”

In New York City food costs a family of four about$1,000 a month.

Part of making a community livable means that residents have access to the services and things they need – fresh food being one of those services. Families, in particular, may have to bring their children with them to do the shopping, purchase large amounts of food and travel in inclement weather to grocery stores that are farther away than the small corner shops that dot urban neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that small stores “generally offer fewer healthy foods, are poorly maintained, and charge higher prices.”  Plus, smaller stores charge prices that can be up to 49 percent higher than supermarket prices, according to Food First, a San Francisco-based food policy organization.

To put it simply, inner city folks in low-income areas have a much tougher time reaching stores because of a lack of integration between land use, transportation and housing policy, as well as issues like redlining in the supermarket industry.

Washington, D.C: More Grocery Stores in Northwest

Washington, D.C.’s lowest income and predominantly African-American neighborhoods, like wards 7 and 8, have around one grocery store for 47,000 people compared to the city’s upper-income and predominantly white wards like 2 and 3, which have one store for every 8, 900 people.

A D.C. Hunger Solutions report (view PDF here) found that residents in Wards 4, 5 and 7 must travel, on average, more than half a mile to reach the grocery store. These wards have lower household incomes (excluding Ward 4) and higher rates of diabetes and obesity than the average for the rest of the city.

Map from D.C. Hunger Solutions and Social Compact Report.

Map from D.C. Hunger Solutions and Social Compact Report.

San Francisco: Long Travel Times to the Store

Another study found that residents of low-income communities in the Bay Area who rely on public buses to travel to a grocery store spend extremely long times commuting to and from the store, compared to residents in affluent communities who can reach more than three supermarkets by car within 10 minutes round-trip. (View the PDF here, published by Transform, People United for a Better Life in Oakland and a Center for Third World Organizing.)  Here is a summary of findings in focus communities:

The mapping, survey, and research findings presented in this report clearly demonstrate that the Bay Area’s most disadvantaged communities face significant transportation barriers to healthy activities. In low-income communities of color, where car-ownership rates are low, inadequate public transit limits access to hospitals, community clinics, supermarkets, and regional parks. People of color are disproportionately injured and killed on unsafe streets – a health crisis in itself that in turn contributes to fears of walking and bicycling.

Transform studied counties where more than 89 percent of people are of color (identified as Latino and African American), 21 percent do not have a car and 45 percent live below the poverty line. Their research is representative of more than 400,000 Bay Area residents.  The study also found that 53 percent of those surveyed say that a lack of good transportation “put limits on where they shop.”

Detroit: A New Vision for Food System Solutions

But the issue with food deserts is not about identifying and documenting the problems and reinforcing the connections between race, disease and poverty, it’s about empowering people within these communities and cities to make comprehensive changes.  Detroit has few quality grocery stores that sell fresh foods – the vast majority are convenience stores, bakeries and gas stations – yet the city has become a model for a self-reliant, community-based food systems. The city is building a network of farmers’ markets, and adjusting its zoning for more community gardens and urban farms.  Many community members are taking charge of the issue themselves by establishing, for example, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which aims to bring improve residents’ access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food through urban agriculture and policy work.

Other Solutions

Detroit’s active network of advocates, social justice proponents and urban farmers is working in a city confronted by joblessness and blight.

Transit and planning solutions can also go a long way. Transit oriented development centers future growth around public transportation, and zoning and building incentives can be codified to encourage food retail. Also, establishing a high frequency of bus routes or shuttles that go directly from community centers to grocery stores will encourage shoppers and greatly ease access for the elderly and car-less. City transit and public health planners should work together to make sure urban communities with low rates of car ownership can access major food stores and other health-related venues like hospitals.

There are many non-transport solutions as well, including helping corner stores improve their food quality and operations, reinvesting in inner-city supermarkets, improving the quality and healthfulness of school food and sharing skills about nutrition. However, transportation is a key piece in reducing barriers to the consumption of healthy food.