Thursday, April 19, 2012

Food Deserts in America: Geographic Reality or Politicized Myth?

A Food Desert is defined as an area which lacks easy access to groceries.  This can range from a poor urban neighborhood where one has to take a series of buses to get to a grocery store to a rural county where one has to drive several miles to buy food.  The term "food desert" has entered the American lexicon in part because of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program which in part discusses how food deserts force families to buy unhealthy foods which in turn causes high rates of obesity and other illnesses.

The White House has released a video featuring food deserts.

A TEDx Talk from Chicago further discusses food deserts in detail

There is a new wave of information documenting the geography of food deserts.  Scientific American just published their study on food deserts with maps and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a zoomable map of food deserts down to the census tract.

Food deserts and health issues.  Maps from Scientific American.  Click to enlarge.
While food deserts become a geographic topic of interest and importance in the United States some are challenging there prevalence.  New RAND studies states that poor urban neighborhoods, the poster geographical region of food deserts, not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than affluent neighborhoods, but also have more grocery stores and supermarkets as well.  Further, neither studies found a connection between the studied food environments and obesity.

A professional partisan professional, non-geographer stated to me that food deserts are "overhyped myths" by "the First Lady to pretend she cares so she can rally votes for Obama [for the upcoming election]."  She further claims that rural areas include farms and people who are use to having to travel more than a mile for almost everything.  The partisan professional went on to claim that the correlation on the various maps do not fully match up and that the Department of Agriculture map did not reveal its data on convenience stores et al versus grocery stores.

My food geography studies are fairly limited so I honestly have to say I do not know enough to make any judgement call on food deserts in the United States.  It is undeniable there are regions where food access can be somewhat difficult but whether or not this translates into the health issues as claimed by some seems up for question.

If there are any geographers who have experience in food geography I would love to hear from you in either the comments forum or through a guest post.


Catholicgauze said...

Comment via Twitter: Reality from experience, but the data released is too coarse of resolution (spatial & temporal) to tell the whole picture.

Anonymous said...

Interesting! Funny to see data in Nevada where it is 97% government owned and also where Area 51 is. Also interesting that Texas is chock full of "diabetics" but none in Colorado? Where I am, you can't go a block without a convenience store so taking it to county level would be more informative but you can only use what you have! You rock, Catholicgauze!

data diplomacy said...

A lot of this is coming from the health disparities. The idea is that given a combination of genetic, social and economic factors, health outcomes can be better or worse. the food desert studies are a weak attempt at introducing a visually compelling data element to this discussion.
I went through one of these exercises locally and the methodology and assumptions are rather light. The premise is that people do not have healthy diets because they do not have access to healthy food choices. So fast food and convenience stores are negative and full scale grocery stores are positive. However, that grocery stores also sell all the same junk food that you find at convenience stores is sort of brushed off. Moreover, these analyses do not count the smaller ethnic grocery stores that abound in my city neighborhoods. The reason given is that what they sell is not always healthy? Basic questions such as do people know how to prepare healthy food, do they have the time and desire to do so seem to be outside the scope of these studies.
There was a good documentary series called uncommon ground about health disparities. One issue it found was that recent immigrants to this country had better health than the succeeding generations. So food deserts to me only hold if there is a motivation to prioritize eating healthy. Mapping might better focus on social and economic demographic elements in combination with lifestyle surveys.

Catholicgauze said...

Data Diplomacy,
Very great points, as always!

Dan tdaxp said...

APM Marketplace Money, which normally leans center-left, has a piece arguing that food deserts are a myth

Mai Yan said...

Sounds more like they're just saying that to attract more investors, or even to pique tourists' attention towards a certain location.