Not Lost in the Supermarket: Identifying True ‘Food Deserts’

When my wife and I relocated from D.C.’s Logan Circle to Capitol Hill five years ago, the most tumultuous change in our lifestyle (aside from my not being able to walk to Brookings every day) concerned the much farther distance we’d have to travel to the nearest supermarket. We had the luxury of shopping at a very nice, if spendy, grocery store about two blocks from our home, which meant that we often did “just-in-time” dinner shopping on the way home from work. Now we were moving to a house where the distance to the nearest supermarket was 1.5 miles, not so walkable at 7 pm.

Did we live in a “supermarket desert?” On the one hand, Capitol Hill is a pretty densely populated part of D.C., so 1.5 miles felt like a long way. And while the Hill is an economically diverse area, it’s large with significant pockets of affluence. On the other hand, like a lot of our neighbors, we own a car. So while nightly trips to the supermarket were out, it was hardly an onerous trip on the weekends.

There are, however, many communities nationwide in which that trip to the supermarket is a long one, and most have much lower incomes than the Hill. That’s the conclusion from new research we conducted with help from The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a community development financial institution and research organization based in Philadelphia. TRF played a lead role in designing and implementing the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a program that provides grants and low-cost capital to facilitate the location of new supermarkets and fresh food retailers in that state’s underserved communities. That initiative is now the model for several other state and local programs, as well as the inspiration for a major new federal budget initiative that seeks to improve community health and economic development outcomes through supermarket attraction and expansion.

With TRF, we looked at 10 metro areas across the country, ranging in size from Jackson, Miss. to Los Angeles. Unlike a lot of previous research that attempted to identify “food deserts,” TRF’s analysis looks at factors beyond distance to a supermarket that matter for access, including a community’s population density and level of car ownership. And it uses household income and expenditure data to help pinpoint the communities that have a significant untapped local demand for supermarkets.

Across the 10 metro areas, about 1.7 million people (5 percent of total population) live in low- and moderate-income communities that are significantly underserved by supermarkets. African Americans, children, and very low-income families are over-represented in these areas. Greater Los Angeles alone accounts for half a million of the underserved; and in the Cleveland metro, more than one in nine residents lives in a low-supermarket-access community. Estimates suggest that upwards of $2.6 billion annually in grocery expenditures may “leak” out of these communities due to a lack of nearby supermarkets.

The real upside of this research project is that all of the results are viewable online, through TRF’s PolicyMap service. So local economic development officials, neighborhood-based organizations, retailers, and others can examine the location and characteristics of low-supermarket-access areas in their own communities. On Capitol Hill, the analysis suggests that we’re pretty well served. Lots of car owners, and it’s really not that far to the store. Cross the Anacostia River, however, and it’s another story altogether. Pinpointing and describing the untapped opportunities for supermarket development is hopefully a first step toward reducing market obstacles to higher-quality, lower-cost food options for residents of communities like Ward 7 and Ward 8 nationwide.