The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that each year nearly 15% of the United States population experiences “food scarcity,” which they define as existing “whenever the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways is limited or uncertain” (USDA, 2011). This research report examines one part of food scarcity, “food deserts,” as experienced by residents of the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. The USDA defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store” (USDA, 2009). While many “food desert” communities have fast food restaurants and small convenience stores, they often lack full-service grocery stores that stock a range of healthy food options. In addition, many residents of these communities lack adequate transportation that would allow them to shop at grocery stores in adjacent communities.
There are many serious consequences related to living in a food desert. For example, studies have linked a lack of access to grocery stores to serious health concerns, such as higher rates of obesity and increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Ver Ploeg et al., 2009). In addition, economic costs associated with food deserts, such as high transit costs to grocery stores outside of the community and higher prices at neighborhood convenience stores, are an economic hardship on low-income residents of food deserts. Therefore, analyzing food access in Lincoln Park/West End is important for improving the quality of life of neighborhood residents, aiding economic development of the area, and ameliorating health outcomes within the community.
We understand that people choose to eat a wide variety of food ranging from pre-packaged convenience foods to pre-cooked deli foods; frozen vegetables to local, organic vegetables; and pasties to egg rolls. Our interest in writing this report is not to promote a certain diet (i.e. only organic or only local), but instead to argue that all Duluthians have the right to sufficient amounts of healthy, tasty and affordable food (Chilton & Rose, 2009). This requires that all Duluthians have a reasonably priced grocery store easily accessible to them.
The goals of this project are to identify how residents of the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood access groceries, identify the barriers residents experience when trying to access groceries, and to offer recommendations for how to improve food access. We believe that different public, private and civil society organizations can work together to improve food access in Lincoln Park/West End. By identifying how Lincoln Park/West End residents access food and by understanding the existing barriers to expanding grocery options in the community, we can create the appropriate solutions.
What Are Food Deserts?
Scholars typically define urban food deserts as low-income neighborhoods that have relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food (Larsen & Gilliland, 2008; USDA, 2009). These neighborhoods may have other shopping venues like convenience stores and liquor stores, but lack a reasonably priced well-stocked grocery store. Some scholars also argue that there is a relationship between food deserts and the “civic-structure” of a neighborhood in that neighborhoods with strong community organizations and a sense of identity are better able to respond to the lack of a grocery store than un-cohesive or poorly organized neighborhoods (Morton, Bitto, Oakland, & Sand, 2005). Therefore, one way to fight food deserts is to support neighborhood organizations that are working to improve residents’ access to food. Hilary Shaw identifies three types of barriers, physical, economic and attitudinal (see Figure 1), that people who live in food deserts face when trying to access healthy food (Shaw, 2006).
Figure 1: Elements of Food Deserts
Source: Adapted from Shaw, 2006
Physical barriers are the concrete things that act as barriers to people trying to access a grocery store. Distance from a store, snow or ice-covered streets, lack of curb cuts or sidewalks, and a lack of convenient transit connections to grocery stores are all examples of physical barriers. As grocery stores leave the city centers and big-box retail food outlets emerge in the suburbs, the United States is increasingly creating a food system in which cars are necessary for accessing healthy food because it is not available within walking distance of people’s homes (Larsen & Gilliland, 2008). This means that convenience stores and other non-traditional food outlets, which are often located within walking distance of residential neighborhoods, are becoming increasingly important parts of how people access food (Black & Kouba, 2005).
Economic barriers refer to the difficulties people who live in food deserts experience when trying to afford groceries or when affording travel expenses to access more affordable groceries in other neighborhoods. In a neighborhood with only a high-priced grocery store, economic barriers may be more limiting than physical barriers. For example, traveling to and from the grocery store can be expensive, especially when residents must use taxi services. Food delivery services are often either unavailable or too expensive for most consumers to use. The recent economic downturn and the growing income inequality in the United States are increasingly becoming economic barriers to accessing healthy food.
Attitudinal barriers refer to the different tastes and desires of individual consumers. For example, if an individual prefers pre-packaged foods and has only fresh vegetables available in their neighborhood markets, then they are experiencing life in a food desert even if their neighbors who have other dietary needs are not living in a food desert. Therefore, it is important to recognize the variety of diets that people eat when considering how food deserts effect people.
Causes of Food Deserts
Several different factors help create circumstances that lead to food deserts. For instance, fragmentation of metropolitan development in the U.S. contributed to the concentration of low-income communities in the inner city and the concentration of wealthier residents in the suburbs (Dreier, Mollenkopf & Swanstrom, 2005). In addition, the act of redlining by banks resulted in a lack of access to credit in urban neighborhoods and forced retailers and investors out of the inner city. Scholars have also noted the decline in the number of smaller neighborhood grocery stores and the increased emergence of larger grocery stores in suburban locations (Larsen & Gilliland, 2008). These forces created car-oriented neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities with good access to healthy food and inner-city communities with limited transit options that effectively cut-off residents’ access to healthy food.
How Do People in Food Deserts Provision Themselves?
While grocery shopping in food deserts is difficult, people who live in food deserts do not starve. Instead, they engage in a variety of different coping strategies to obtain the foods they need. For example, they shop at convenience stores; travel to shop at traditional grocery stores outside of their neighborhood; rely on soup kitchens, food shelves, and other distributors of commodity foods; and participate in federal anti-hunger programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and WIC (Eikenberry & Smith, 2005). In addition, child-focused programs such as the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program and the Afterschool Nutrition Program provide healthy meals to children. It is important to think about food access as one of many challenges this population faces because food deserts disproportionately affect low-income people who experience multiple challenges, such as lack of access to health insurance, poor housing conditions, lack of income, and low educational attainment (Black & Kouba, 2005; USDA, 2009).
What Problems Do Food Deserts Create?
Children, the Elderly, and Those without Cars
Food deserts do not affect all members of local communities equally. Instead, groups that have limited mobility tend to be hurt the most (Ley, 1983). For example, while more mobile community members are able to travel outside of the community to shop, children who cannot travel long distances without parental supervision and those residents who rely on public transit must find ways to access groceries not available in their neighborhood. In addition, elderly residents who do not drive and cannot travel outside the community are often completely dependent on neighborhood stores.
People living in food deserts who shop for food in convenience stores pay higher prices for food. Large big-box type stores located close to highways and draw in customers from a wide radius, buy food in bulk and are therefore able to sell food at deeply discounted prices (Hendrickson, Smith, & Eikenberry, 2006). In contrast, small stores in inner city neighborhoods must purchase their stock in smaller quantities at higher prices and sell food at highly inflated prices. When residents of food deserts are able to travel outside of their community to shop for discounted groceries, travel costs offset any savings (Blanchard & Lyson, 2005; Hendrickson et al., 2006; Larson, Story, & Nelson, 2009). With rising fuel costs, transit is becoming particularly expensive.
Research shows that convenience stores sell lower-quality food, and not the fresh and healthy food that people need to thrive and nourish their families (Hendrickson et al., 2006). Part of the reason for stocking lesser quality goods is that with low turnover of goods, it is more difficult for smaller stores to keep a fresh stock of fruits and vegetables. Similarly, small retailers pay higher costs for their stock than large retailers, thereby making it difficult, though not impossible, to make a profit on high quality, healthy food. In addition, stores that are not primarily grocery stores often carry many unhealthy packaged food options because they are easy to stock, but are not nutritious.
Food is a unique commodity in that households must purchase it on a regular basis, unlike goods such as clothing and electronics that can be purchased much less frequently. Therefore, transportation to and from the grocery store can be a constant and ongoing struggle for consumers living in food deserts. For those without cars, walking to purchase groceries can be difficult. Food is heavy and there is only a very small radius around grocery stores within which consumers could reliably shop without using a car. One study found that large big-box grocery stores have a limited impact on the diets of young people who live just a half-mile from the store, while convenience stores located even closer to their homes had a greater impact on their diets (Hendrickson et al., 2006). Duluth has long winters and large amounts of snow and ice, which makes shopping for food without a car difficult (Larsen & Gilliland, 2008). For those traveling by bus to the grocery store, transportation is still challenging. Buses do not have a place to store groceries, and traveling by bus with small children and groceries is difficult. Add to this the hazards posed by large parking lots surrounding suburban grocery complexes where shoppers must negotiate the distance between their home, the bus, the store and back again. For consumers with cars, shopping is easier. They can travel outside of their immediate neighborhood to shop at the store with the widest selection and the lowest prices. However, this flexibility demands a car that comes with the ever-increasing costs for maintenance and fuel. Therefore, while cars improve access to healthy and diverse groceries, they do so at a higher cost.
Neighborhood grocery stores provide more benefits than simply access to convenient food; they also provide a neighborhood meeting place as well as a store to purchase inexpensive items, like newspapers, milk, and flour, which are less expensive than the transit costs it would take to drive to buy them at a larger store (Wrigley, Warm, & Margetts, 2003). Communities that do not have a grocery store lack a place where someone can easily purchase an item that they forgot during a weekly shopping trip, which forces consumers to travel a far distance for a small purchase (Short, Guthman, & Raskin, 2007). Similarly, as fewer grocery stores exist, people choose to shop less often and make less frequent, but larger shopping trips (Blanchard & Lyson, 2005).
Higher Rates of Obesity and Lower Health Outcomes
There is a large variety of data linking neighborhoods that lack access to grocery stores with poor health outcomes. For example, residents living in neighborhoods with grocery stores are more likely to have higher fresh fruit and vegetable intake (Wrigley et al., 2003; Michimi & Wimberly, 2010; Larson et al., 2009; Pearson, Russell, Campbell, & Barker, 2005). Similarly, the public health literature identifies significant health problems related to poor diets and hunger by noting that hungry persons suffer from two to four times as many individual health problems, such as unwanted weight loss, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate and frequent colds (NIH, 1999). Malnourishment negatively effects the cognitive development of children resulting in loss of knowledge, brainpower and productivity. For example, iron-deficiency anemia in children can lead to developmental and behavioral disturbances. Studies also found that pregnant women who are undernourished are more likely to have low birth weight babies, and that these babies are more likely to suffer delays in their physical and cognitive development (Food Research Action Center, 2005). In addition, malnutrition aggravates chronic and acute diseases and speeds the onset of degenerative diseases among the elderly. Finally, hunger and food insecurity have an emotional impact on children, parents, and communities. When it is difficult for people to travel to a grocery store, then people choose to eat filling, less healthy foods that lack the nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. Therefore, communities that lack grocery stores actually end up having higher rates of obesity because of the prevalence of unhealthy food.
What Solutions Exist to the Problem of Food Deserts?
Duluth has a variety of services that provide food to people for discounted rates on a monthly basis. SHARE and Angel Food Ministries are both buying clubs that are open to all interested Duluthians. To use these services you place an order and a few weeks later on the designated distribution day you receive your food order. These programs offer savings of up to 50% on food costs by cutting out the middlemen, which in this case are the retail outlets. There are still barriers attributed to these services. For instance, Duluth has only a few distributions sites and people living in food deserts still need transportation to reach these sites. In addition, these centers distribute food only once per month, meaning that this service can only supplement a household’s grocery needs and not meet them completely.
Ruby’s Pantry is slightly different from the above-mentioned buying clubs. The organization is also open to any Duluthian that is willing to purchase a $15 share of food. Each share receives about $100 worth of donated food on a monthly basis. Different from buying clubs, Ruby’s Pantry does not allow participants to choose the food they receive, and instead includes in each share the same allotment of food. While Ruby’s Pantry offers a deeper discount than SHARE or Angel Food Ministry, it has similar accessibility drawbacks in that distribution occurs only once per month.
City leaders can use local regulations to improve access to fresh and healthy food. Cities like Los Angeles, Buffalo, New York and Concord, Massachusetts have used zoning regulations to promote the sale of healthy food by limiting the number of fast food outlets within their boundaries (Raja, Born, & Russell, 2008). Similarly, other cities, including Minneapolis, have used local regulations to demand that all small corner stores stock a variety of healthy foods. Still other cities, such as Detroit and Milwaukee, have created local food advisory boards to work with public and non-profit entities to improve access to healthy food and to create a local food system plan in an effort to provide access to fresh, healthy food to all members of the community.
Public, Private, and Non-Profit Partnerships
In Duluth, the 4th Street Market in the Central Hillside neighborhood operates in a space renovated by the non-profit A. H. Zeppa Family Foundation and is run by a for-profit businessperson. Similarly, the state of Pennsylvania has stepped in to address the issue of food deserts by making state money available for grocery store development in underserved communities. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, for example, addresses a local neighborhood issue at the state level by helping to offset the high costs of investing in inner-city communities (The Reinvestment Fund, 2006). This is important because it addresses issues of financing, which is often the biggest obstacle to investment in the inner city. The initiative is also innovative in that it supports a public/private solution to the problem of food deserts focusing on improving the health outcomes of Pennsylvanians, creating jobs in inner-city communities, and training community residents to take these new jobs.
Farmers’ markets provide a fixed place in the city for farmers operating outside of the city to sell their goods to urban residents. According to the USDA, the number of these markets has increased dramatically in recent years: up from 1755 in 1994 to 4385 in 2006 (Raja
et al., 2008). While these markets focus primarily on selling produce, they also provide space to sell local handicrafts and other foodstuffs, like bread, dairy products and meat. Establishing a strong farmers’ market means more than simply making retail space available to farmers in the city. It also requires providing sellers coverage from inclement weather and the ability for merchants to accept alternative forms of payment, such as WIC and SNAP vouchers. While farmers’ markets do not operate with the same hours as a traditional convenience store, they have the benefits of helping rural and urban residents form relationships and providing residents access to fresh and healthy foods.
Figure 2: Main Federal Food Support Programs
Federal Funding (in billions)
# of People Served (in millions)
Low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children
Afterschool Nutrition Program
Child and Adult Care Food Program
Daycares & institutionalized populations
Source: Food Research Access Center, State of States, 2010
Federal Level Solutions
It is important to note that the largest array of food-support programs are federal level programs (see Figure 2). While not specific to food deserts, these types of programs likely affect those living in food deserts and play an important role in addressing the issue of food scarcity. More specifically directed to the issue of food deserts, a federal version of the successful Fresh Food Finance Initiative is being introduced at the national level.