Should We Still Be Talking About Food Deserts?

By now, you’ve probably heard about food deserts.  Maybe as part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign to end childhood obesity.  Maybe your state has established a task force to investigate food accessibility.  Perhaps you’ve even mapped a food desert in your own town or city, using tools like the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas.  Though the term “food desert” can mean a variety of things, generally speaking, it refers to places with limited proximity to supermarkets and low rates of vehicle ownership, thus making a simple shopping trip more difficult than in better-served areas.  In many cities, the term also describes distinct racial and income disparities in terms supermarket access.  


The term “food desert” isn’t without its own problems.  First, and perhaps most importantly, this neighborhood-based concept doesn’t reflect how people actually live: many shoppers travel beyond the store closest to home, and this includes low-income and limited-mobility households.  By drawing lines around an area (typically using administrative boundaries, like Census tracts), we’re dramatically abstracting the notion of access.

Another issue is that the desert metaphor adopts a deficit orientation.  It’s possible that a neighborhood has a thriving urban garden system, or a robust network of curbside produce vendors, but no supermarket.  By naming a place a food desert, we might overlook or obscure important community food assets.  

Finally, the food desert concept assumes a specific problem and solution: supermarkets are lacking, and should be developed.  Among the many ways to bring healthy, fresh foods to areas without retailers, supermarket development is a large, expensive, and complicated endeavor. To this end, local, state, and federal actors have designed incentive packages to make these projects happen (check out the Heathy Food Access Portal for a variety of examples).

Nevertheless, as a planning researcher, I find some utility in the term.  Many low-income households want to shop at supermarkets, just as higher-income people.  Alternative models, such as farmers’ markets, cooperative groceries, and urban agriculture may all play a role (or, more likely, many roles) in terms of food access, mental and physical wellness, and community development.  Yet, they are hardly a replacement for the supermarket model that most American households use without issue.  The food desert concept can focus attention, and more importantly political, social, and economic capital, to one type of community development.

Indeed, supermarkets are major vehicle of the industrial food system; in many cases, they are also what low-income communities ask for.  This is worth much further exploration, but I offer it here to suggest that these dynamics aren’t straightforward or simple.

Now that I’ve punted on this major philosophical issue, let me offer a couple immediate research questions.  Many supermarket projects already completed, and more in the pipeline, so it makes sense for planning researchers to take stock of these developments and describe their effects.

  • When a new supermarket opens, do smaller stores close?  This is often the fear, and sometimes the case.  If so, what is the impact of these closures, both in terms of economic and social outcomes?
  • This isn’t the first time planners have advocated for supermarkets as elements of downtown revitalization.  What lessons have we learned (or should we learn) from history?
  • What are some of the “false positives” that result from the food desert definition?  For instance, where are places we call food deserts, but, in fact, are not?  Is this because a network of smaller stores effectively fills in?  Do few people actually live there?
  • Alternatively, what about “false negatives?”  Are there areas with supermarkets that are still poorly served?  Is the quality of a neighborhood supermarket so bad that nobody considers it a viable option?  Or, more provocative: how much does access matter when shoppers are poor (i.e. isn’t this just a poverty issue)?


Ben Chrisinger, PhD MUEP, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center and a member of APA-FIG’s Research Working Group.  You can follow him on Twitter, @benchrisinger.