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Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Are Food Deserts Exaggerated? by Angie Schmitt

Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest.

GOOD Magazine, Dateline, NBC and countless others have weighed in on the apparent market failure that causes grocery stores to shun cities like Detroit and Cleveland like a bad case of head lice.


Detroit’s grocery stores, or food markets

This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this year when it was widely circulated that the city of Detroit — all 140 miles of it — lacked a single grocery store. This was, of course, patently false. A quick Google search shows that there are dozens, even hundreds, of foodsellers populating Detroit’s neighborhoods.

What type of grocer does business in down-and-dirty Detroit? One example is the Honey Bee Market, a family-owned business that has been operating in the city for five decades. It carries a wide selection of Central American ingredients, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables. The store was voted “most fun” by Detroit’s Metro Times.

So how did the Wall Street Journal, Dateline and NBC get it so wrong about Detroit? I argue that it is all about semantics, along with a large dose of cultural relativism.

The argument about food deserts seems to be premised on the assumption that supermarkets — suburban-style, big-box, corporate chain stores with plenty o’ parking — are inherently superior to walkable, family owned food markets that serve low-income populations. The media portrays these corner markets as liquor stores or “discount” stores carrying little fresh produce and lots of Hostess cupcakes.

While there is certainly a class of convenience store that lacks healthy food options, many analyses have completely ignored the presence of small, family-owned food markets and their important role in feeding urban populations.

The USDA — which recently released its “food desert locator” to wide fanfare — admits to using “supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.” Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for USDA said, “We define supermarkets and large grocery stores as food stores with at least $2 million in [annual] sales that contain all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket.”

“We do not address smaller outlets that have fresh food,” she said. But she added that there are some local studies that have examined the issue. Here definitions are important. One of the two studies cited by the USDA [PDF] showed that depending on which definitions are employed, between 17 and 87 percent of New Orleans is a food desert.

To say that food sellers who do more than $2 million in business provide fresh food and those who sell less do not is a rough estimate to say the least. In fact, in my experience, it’s false. According to the locator, I live right on the border of a USDA-defined “food desert.” The thing is, I’ve never had better access to food in my life. The corner market by my house is exactly the type of place the USDA or CNN would ignore. The Deli, as it’s called, is kind of shabby looking from the outside and there’s no way it’s more than 10,000 square feet. But I love it.


The Deli in Cleveland is a small food seller, but it carries all the essentials. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s run by a family. They sell fresh-sliced cold cuts, fresh fruits and veggies. They have everything you’d need on a day-to-day basis, at prices I think are more than fair. I know because it’s helped me many times in a pinch. You can get eggs, potatoes, grapes, cheese (real cheese), sardines and even even pulpo (octopus) in a can. And of course you can also get essentials like band-aids, cheap beer, good beer, baby formula, toilet paper and macaroni and cheese. I have a recipe that calls for Jiffy corn bread mix and sour cream. They have them both.

It’s not the only market within a short walk from my house; there are literally half a dozen. There’s a Vietnamese market that I’ve grown to like for its unusual baked goods, selection of fish and exotic produce including escarole. There is Stockyard Meats, a family-owned butcher and general grocery, where you can order a whole pig for roasting. Right next door is a Save-A-Lot, which is a grocery in every other sense than the USDA/CNN definition. It’s no Whole Foods, but it has produce, meat, canned goods, frozen foods at prices that are appropriate for the neighborhood’s median household income ($25,000 at the last Census).

Just over a mile away is a “traditional” grocery store, by USDA definition, with a fish counter and a dairy aisle. It’s an easy trip by bike. But most of my neighbors, the low-income folks that that these types of studies are generally concerned with, don’t drive and don’t bother making the trek. And why would they? You can get everything you need in a short walk.

What the USDA fails to realize is that if food stores are located very close to your house, they needn’t be as large. You can pop in many times a week and pick up a light enough load to carry. That’s what many of my neighbors and I do. As a result, we don’t need SUVs. We don’t need acres of asphalt. Our neighborhoods are more livable thanks to corner markets.

What The Deli lacks in selection, it makes up for in accessibility. I’ll take walkability over 50 kinds of cereal and 14 kinds of peanut butter any day of the week.


Women haul groceries on foot in near west Cleveland. Photo: Angie Schmitt

As for the claim that that small food stores are unfairly exploiting their consumers, even the USDA’s analysis doesn’t support that conclusion. A 2009 study by the agency [PDF] found that those in the lowest income bracket (those that make between $8,000 and $30,000 annually) pay just 1.3 percent more than those in the next highest income bracket for food. Factor in the fact that many of these folks don’t need to pay for gas, car insurance and maintenance, and suddenly walkable food markets start to seem like a bargain.

Why does all this matter? The food desert problem, at least the way it’s been framed, seems to make a strong argument for cities to offer tax incentives for suburban-scale grocery stores to enter the city. Indeed the Obama Administration has offered $400 million to help expand food access in American food deserts. But if a big, corporate supermarket gets an unfair, taxpayer-funded boost, what will that mean for The Deli or Stockyard Meats?

There is a very logical, business explanation for why this hasn’t occurred already. The new grocery store would have to be within one-half mile to serve people who don’t drive, which is a significant part of the Cleveland market. The city simply doesn’t have the density to support so many large, walkable groceries. Instead, small markets fill that niche.

Without small markets like The Deli, food access and malnutrition would be a much bigger problem in Cleveland and many other cities throughout the United States. Rather than dismissing these businesses, the USDA should study these stores, how they make their stocking decisions and what room there is for improvement. Large grocery stores may offer a wide variety of fresh produce, but they come with a built-in deficit when it comes to accessibility for car-free people.

This post originally appeared in Streetsblog on May 10, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.

15 Comments
Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Cleveland, Detroit

15 Responses to “Are Food Deserts Exaggerated? by Angie Schmitt”

  1. Horsetrader says:

    Good article. I think there may still be an issue of affordability that separates access from consumption. Vegetables and quality proteins cost more than grains and highly processed foods. Many people may have access to more nutritious food but choose less nutritious food for cost reasons.

  2. This is such a refreshing perspective to hear on this issue. If the government gets into the business of picking winners and losers in the grocery business, it could leave low-income residents worse off if subsidized, large chains drive corner markets out of business.

  3. AC says:

    I do not live in Detroit but currently live in Brooklyn after having done stints in various cities in the Midwest. I appreciate Ms. Schmitt’s perspective as food deserts are but one aspect of many intersecting areas: availability of affordable and healthy food, rethinking what’s required of cities (transportation, convenience, quality of life), demand vs. supply in low-density regions, urban aspirations towards certain city ideals vs. the reality lived by residents, a rethinking of what constitutes “basic” needs (available food vs. healthy food), and so forth. I do agree that the corner delis and bodegas fill niches and are not just retail establishments but also can be communication or community-gathering sites. These places should not be written-off in favor of supermarkets, which I think most people can reasonably understand.

    Maybe it is the term “food desert” that has become problematic; from what I’ve read in a variety of both urbanist and social justice sites, “food deserts” has (wrongly, in my opinion) become shorthand for having the time, energy, appliances, and knowledge to prepare and store fresh foods. Discussions about food deserts has replaced conversations (and eventual action) addressing inequality in terms of retail options, transportation, etc. “Food desert” implies certain types of neighborhoods of people who – for whatever reason – have to stay in these “deserted” neighborhoods; asking why these neighborhoods were considered “deserted” in the first place despite having residents requires a much more difficult conversations.

    I don’t comment here very often (though have been an avid reader) but when I do, it’s usually in relation to questions about privilege, what types of neighborhoods are worth developing, the meaning of “development” and at what costs, and so forth. I feel like a n00b in urbanist space but maybe that’s the point: if city planning – has failed in the past precisely because of its lack of authenticity or misguided efforts (see Sharon Zukin’s book, The Naked City), then maybe urbanism needs a paradigm shift. Who do we think “deserve” certain amenities, and from where does that rationale stem? Who is making these decisions, and to what ends?

    Anyways – as always, thanks for the interesting article, Aaron.

  4. howard mock says:

    come to the ghetto in chicago and go out to get some fresh food at your local grocery. you will be severely disappointed in your search; for either one.
    i just drove for about 15 miles along a stretch of a major street through the poorer neighborhoods – and looked for grocery stores. there were none. if you want to count other stores that sell mostly something else and are the size of a ground floor apartment where you might be able to buy some canned tuna, well, that is not really a grocery store is it?
    let’s not argue with this very important issue and get the grocery chains to take some risks and open in the neighborhoods.
    go out and drive. don’t look at statistics and someone else’s reports and figures.

  5. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I cant speak for other cities.But there have been articles about “food deserts’ in Baltimore. i work in construction and work in a different spot in Baltimore every week.and i have worked in some very poor neighborhoods.and i havent seen on neighborhood in Baltimore yet, where someone has to walk more than 20 minutes to a grocery store.

    I myself live in a blue collar neighborhood, and my house is only a hundred feet from a neighborhood which leads the city in homocides.And there are 2 grocery stores within a ten minute walk from me.Another thats 15 minutes from me by foot. And a public market that sells fresh vegetables and meat from local farms is a 25 minute walk from me.But its only a 5 minute bus ride from me.

    Basicly many of the people refering to “food deserts” seem to be saying that a neighborhood is a “food desert” if it doesnt have a Whole Foods . Some of the newer gentrifiers in the neighborhood worship Whole Foods.But look down in disadin on the public market.Even though the food in the public market is fresher and more local. To me, a lot of the talk of “food deserts” seems to be based on snobbery

    Ive eaten all over Baltimore.And the poorer neighorhoods actally have better and more affordable food than the rich ones. My own neighborhood is about 1/3 hispanic. And the small Latino corner stores are full of fresh fruit and vegeatables.And they serve great home cooked style meals.And i fed myself and 3 co-workers off of one $5 platter once.

    When i tell people this, they just lament that the neighborhood doesnt have a Whole Foods. I have nothing against Whole Foods.But it isnt the only grocery store in the world.And a neighborhood isnt disadvantaged if it doesnt have a Whole Foods or Harris Teeter.

    And the “food activists” really say bad things about he corner stores in Baltimore. The corner stores are great.You just have to know what to buy. You can buy deli meat and bread and milk at the corner stores at a much cheaper rate than the big grocery stores.Most other things you buy at the grocery stores. The corner stores have some fruit and vegeatables.But they cost a little more than at the grocery store.So they are good if its late at night and you dont want to walk far.

    Baltimore has its problems and its faults. A lack of good and affordable food isnt one of them

  6. Pete from Baltimore says:

    I would be willing to believe Howard Mock in comment #4. I once visited Chicago for 10 days and was surprised at how few stores there were in the neighborhoods. i figured it was because of how spread out Chicago is.Detroit has large areas that are deserted.so “food deserts” there wouldnt surprise me.But i think these cities are outliers.

    It should be mentioned that nobody in America is starving to death or going without toilet paper,ect.And very few people live entirly on candy bars from the corner store.Obviously people in lower incomes are managing to get to grocery stores. The one i go to deals with far,far more people paying in Food Stamps then with people like myself paying in cash. So the poor people in my neighborhood defintly have no problem getting to a grocery store

  7. Richmonde says:

    Great article! Buy light load, no need for SUV or parking – gosh, wow, no, really???? I’ve always lived in an inner-urban area (London, UK) and this is how everybody shops. Tho there is a Tesco’s supermarket up the road and we have an old-fashioned baker’s and the best greengrocer (Turkish) in the city. Well-off people are moving in and opening very expensive patisseries, but that’s another story.

  8. Hey there says:

    What street was that Howard?

  9. The practice of assuming what qualifies as a food marketplace by the USDA is troubling. Is a little “feet on the ground” research about how folks are getting their groceries and then applying those results consistently too much to ask?

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    I think part of the issue is definitional. Some people do mean “no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s”. But I don’t.

    I live in a food desert in Indianapolis, when one defines a food desert as “a place where there is no store or market selling a reasonable selection of reasonably-priced fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy) for home preparation within one mile”.

    Think of that definition as a “banana, broccoli, cheese, milk, beans, and meat/fish” test. Edit as necessary for your dietary exclusions.

    I have to stretch the circle to at least two miles to get the full selection of fresh foods regardless of cost, and the closest such places are two outlets of the same major national grocery chain plus a small local chain. Just past two miles there is also a regional chain grocery. (If I want Walmart or SuperTarget “everyday low prices”, that’s 6 or 7 miles away in several different directions. Gas cost and time eat up the savings.)

    Now, I don’t live in a barren abandoned ghetto with no food retail at all. Within that two-mile circle, there are numerous restaurants of various ethnic cuisines, a Latino panaderia or two, several c-stores, a Walgreen’s, a CVS, and numerous fast-food outlets. Nor must I rely on my feet or transit to get places; depending on route, I pass one or two groceries or supermarkets on the way home from work.

    But someday I will stop working, and my kids will eventually take my car keys away. Between that time and when they choose my nursing home, what will I do?

  11. David says:

    Howard: That is true of certain parts of Chicago; I’ve made that kind of bike ride here on the South Side and found only the kinds of corner stores the USDA seems to believe all corner stores are. Rahm’s and Obama’s support of Walgreen’s, Walmart, etc. is a short-sighted, politically selfish solution, but it is a solution to a real problem.

    That said, I see people come into the corner store nearest me and scrounge for quarters to buy a 5 oz bag of chips with their backs to refrigerators and shelves of real, fresh food. I’ve done the price comparison – the cost of two bags of chips would buy enough vegetables for a family dinner at this store. I’ve talked to people in this city who, while dependent on food stamps, were able to consist on good, organic produce. Access is a problem in some places, but perhaps a bigger problem is getting fried chicken and white bread from Harold’s and sitting in front of the TV for a few hours rather than taking that time to create a cheaper, healthy meal. We’ve been told to take what we’re given, and being given Walgreen’s isn’t going to help that. Support for more stores like the local produce mart, though, where I can ask the employees what to do with any given squash or pepper and get good answers, will help, and so will city-wide programs to get people cooking again and enjoying it.

  12. Rob Reid says:

    Angie Schmitt does well to point out the flaws in the USDA’s measurement methodology of “using ‘supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.'” But I don’t see how her “quick Google search” really does much to dispel the notion of a ‘food desert’ as I’ve seen it defined (i.e., a place with poor access to *healthy* food, regardless of the availability of fast food joints and convenience stores).

    I know Detroit fairly well, and Honey Bee is indeed a great example of an independent store that serves its neighborhood well. She might have also mentioned the sprawling Eastern Market (Saturday only), which draws in not only Detroiters but suburbanites looking for fresh produce.

    But aside from that, on the ground analysis of Schmitt’s Google search results would reveal that most of what she presumes to be “walkable, family owned food markets” offer little more than what you’d find at gas stations across America (i.e. boxed food with lots of preservatives, corn syrup, etc.). Distribution of fresh produce (and meat) in Detroit is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Where can we find a study that identifies gaps in accessibility of *healthy* food?

    I need to learn more about this $400 million Obama bill. I can see Schmitt’s concern about displacing family-owned stores with big box stores, but is that in fact implied in this bill? I see this as *potentially* a worthwhile bill, depending on how it’s defined and implemented. Could it support small-scale grocer/enterpreneurs by helping them access a wider variety of food? Could it make fresh food more affordable to local schools? If so, I’d be all for it.

    My favorite part of the article is where she mentions that at her local deli, “you can also get essentials like… cheap beer”. I assume this is just her sense of humor!

  13. Chris Barnett says:

    I will also point out that I have been working with a dedicated team for almost 4 years to mitigate the food desert one or two neighborhoods closer to downtown from where I live.

    Our solution: Pogue’s Run Grocer, a project of the Indy Food Coop. http://indyfoodcoop.org/ It is a uniquely-financed cooperative grocery; the map of its service area a mile or two out from the store location looks a lot like the Detroit map with c-stores and drugstores on most major corners.

    A “normal” coop (i.e. all those developed before Pogue’s Run Grocer) would rely on member-owner equity and debt financing, with a traditional bank loan. But in a low-income census tract, that isn’t feasible in the same way. So we obtained grant capital and community-development loans, promising to serve an underserved neighborhood with essential products. On a selling floor of less than 4000 square feet, there is a good selection of fresh produce (local, when in season), meats, milk, cheese, bulk beans and grains, canned and dry goods…everything necessary to eat healthy at reasonable cost. Of course, we accept EBT.

    The whole startup, including major building renovation and startup inventory and working capital, cost $650,000.

    $400 million would go a long way if there were local groups like ours ready for the financing: 3-400 stores, by my calculation, allowing for administrative and compliance costs. That’s a dozen or so stores in each of the largest 25-30 cities. More than enough, I’d say.

  14. Jon Hendricks says:

    Always strikes me as interesting how much people in cities make a big deal about having to travel 1, 2, or 15 miles to get food or bus kids to school, etc. Yet people in rural areas routinely travel the same or longer distances with nye a complaint and certainly no trendy news articles about “deserts.”

  15. I have discussed food deserts with many neighbors in Indianapolis and I find that most are totally unaware of the issue. I am disappointed when they seem to have no compassion for others, simply asking me “why should I care?” Then I try to explain is that this is a serious public health issue at a cost to taxpayers. Basically, my rationale is this; bad nutrition in low-income people leads to more diseases and higher healthcare costs for folks on public health programs like medicaid and medicare. This is why doing something to improve nutrition and health of everyone in our community is worthwhile, especially for low-income folks who have few or no groceries nearby and therefore are at the greatest risk. That being said, I have started a petition to ask Indianapolis to develop a more comprehensive preventative program to address this issue; http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-city-of-indianapolis-create-a-comprehensive-plan-to-alleviate-food-deserts-in-indianapolis

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