The Problem of Food Deserts

By / 12.9.2009

The following is an excerpt from Joel Berg’s “Good Food, Good Jobs: Turning Food Deserts into Jobs Oases,” a new policy report from PPI.

Our hunger, malnutrition, obesity, and poverty problems are closely linked. Low-income areas across America that lack access to nutritious foods at affordable prices — the so-called “food deserts” — tend to be the same communities and neighborhoods that, even in better economic times, are also “job deserts” that lack sufficient living-wage employment….A Good Food, Good Jobs program can address these intertwined economic and social problems.


In Los Angeles County in 2002, an average supermarket served 18,649 people, while the average supermarket in a low-income neighborhood served 27,986 people. The higher the concentration of poverty within a neighborhood, the fewer supermarkets there were. In ZIP codes where fewer than 10 percent of households lived below the federal poverty line, there were approximately 2.26 times as many supermarkets per household as there were in ZIP codes where the number of households living below the federal poverty line exceeded 40 percent. In addition, the higher the concentration of white people in a neighborhood, the greater the number of supermarkets.

In neighborhoods without supermarkets, corner stores, bodegas, and convenience stores fill in the gaps. In a study of rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina, researchers identified 77 stores in the county, of which only 16 percent were supermarkets and 10 percent were grocery stores. The remaining 74 percent were convenience stores. Low-fat and nonfat milk, apples, high-fiber bread, eggs, and smoked turkey were available in 75 to 100 percent of supermarkets and grocery stores versus four to 29 percent of convenience stores. Just 28 percent of all stores sold any of the fruits or vegetables included in the survey. Convenience stores also tended to charge more for items than did supermarkets.

A study conducted by the City of New York found, “The city is vastly underserved by local grocery stores.” That dearth has an economic impact. “NYC has the potential to capture approximately $1 billion in grocery spending lost to suburbs,” according to the city.

The lack of supermarkets makes a real difference. Areas without a full range of markets are “obesogenic” (obesity producing). Four different studies have demonstrated a positive association between access to food stores and improved dietary choices. A study in four states found that areas with high numbers of supermarkets had lower rates of obesity, while areas with higher numbers of convenience stores had higher levels of obesity. Nationwide, for every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent.

To add insult to injury, low-income Americans often pay more for food, even though they often purchase food of lower quality than that purchased by higher-income Americans.

To read the executive summary, click here. To download the report, click here.