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Saturday, July 2, 2016

More Food Desert Studies: Let’s Make More Maps

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Citing this Work (MLA Formatting)
"Environmental Injustice Exacerbated by Zoning." GeoFact of the Day Blog. Wonderful World Blog Publishing, 2 July 2016. Web.

          Studies about the lack of food access in both urban and rural areas have generally increased each year, with citations including but certainly not limited to Gallagher (2006), McEntee and Agyeman (2010), Mundorf et al. (2015), Smith and Morton (2009), Thomson (2011), and Walker et al. (2010). All of my citations in this paper give credit to scholarly articles written within this millennium. I cited relatively recent sources of information because there is in-depth analysis and data collection regarding food access (i.e. Gordon et al. 2011 analyzing relationship between demographic variables and food store indices), and there are some specific case studies about particular cities or rural areas (i.e. Smith and Morton 2009 focusing on Iowa and Minnesota). Also, these recent studies utilize a variety of sources and research measures to evaluate food access, including the following examples: census data, focus groups, food use inventory, GIS and cartography, interviews, and surveys (Walker et al. 878). The study of food deserts in both urban neighborhoods and rural settings is proliferating since the beginning of this millennium, and the mapping of food access should play an important role in future case studies for valuable visual insights.

About Food Deserts
          Announced by President Obama in 2010, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative coordinates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research food access and help local markets sell healthy food in so-called food desert areas. The HFFI defines that a food desert is a low-income census tract area (20% or greater poverty) in which at least one-third of local residents have low and especially difficult access to markets, supermarkets, or grocery stores. Low access is defined as urban residents living more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store, as well as rural residents living more than 10 miles from a supermarket or grocery store (Economic Research Service, USDA). Before the official food desert definition came into existence, Mari Gallagher brought the term into mainstream usage after examining the effects of someone’s Chicago neighborhood location on his or her food access (Gallagher 2006, 6). Gallagher’s study became a standard-bearer for future food access research because it contains maps, tables, and graphs – all visual aids which help convert sometimes confusing data into a form that readers can likely understand.

Food Deserts Search Results
          To explore how much research about food deserts is available, I used a comprehensive, centralized database feature that combines all sorts of research documents from multiple databases. “Full text online,” “scholarly & peer-reviewed,” and “peer-reviewed” filters were turned on so I can find accessible and quality-assured resources. A total of 1,462 results contain the exact term food desert – surrounded by quotation marks to keep thisdu phrase exact and intact within search results. The graph below shows how many search results per year were generated. There is a clear increase in search results up until the year 2014, although there is a drop in 2015 and so far in 2016. This graph visually reveals that food desert research grew in the last decade – and at least may be at a sustained level for future study of this subject.

          Since about 75% of census tracts in the United States are urban food deserts (Thomson 8), it would be logical to believe that more research has been done regarding urban food deserts compared to rural ones. This assertion is backed up by my search results – although not to the extent I originally hypothesized. I searched urban food deserts as well as “urban food deserts” (quotation marks to keep this phrase intact) – bringing up 15,460 search results and 82 results, respectively. Meanwhile, a rural food deserts search and a “rural food deserts” search resulted in 12,437 and 55 possible sources to research within. Before this search, I initially hypothesized that there would be about three times as many urban food desert articles as rural food desert ones, matching up with the ratio of urban to rural food deserts. Therefore, at least these search results imply that there is already more research about rural food deserts than I initially thought.

Analyzing Food Access in a Variety of Ways
          Despite the relatively pleasing amount of search results pertaining to rural food access, some scholars nevertheless note the urgent importance of doing more to study rural areas lacking satisfactory food access. For example, Lucan et al. criticizes Hartley et al. for saying that the study of food access and food deserts in rural is “less meaningful.” Lucan et al. comments that some rural residents face burdensome issues such as an inconsistent food supply, lack of transportation, and inconvenient location from stores selling a variety of produce (Lucan et al. 2012, 484-5). Some researchers comment that previous quantitative and data-based studies focused mostly on urban food deserts (McEntee and Argyeman 2010, 166). Smith and Morton implies more research into rural food deserts should be completed, so that better community planning and more incentives for rural grocery and market owners can lead to improved food access (Smith and Morton 185).

          Focusing solely on urban food deserts in New York City’s Brooklyn and Harlem boroughs, Gordon et al. (2010) is noted for an empirical and quantitative approach to explain how food deserts have formed in the Big Apple. For example, these researchers performed a block-by-block assessment of “every establishment selling food and beverages” (Gordon et al. 697) in Brooklyn and Harlem, and studying the Upper East Side (affluent and directly adjacent to Harlem) for comparison. The authors “calculated descriptive statistics for demographic and food access variables and examined the relationship between the block group demographic variables, food desert index components, and the total ‘‘food desert index’’ score. They found that neighborhoods with predominantly African-American residents (especially in Harlem) had the least “most healthy” food stores and the fewest number of supermarkets in New York City. The opposite is true for predominantly Caucasian and Latino block groups (Gordon et al. 699).

          Providing a specific case study for another urban area, Mundorf et al. (2015) focused on studying the changes of food access disparities in New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina. Like Gordon et al., these researchers quantitatively analyzed food deserts and food access – performing “HLM Poisson regression analyses,” to be exact (Mundorf et al. 605). They found that the food access situation for African Americans – relative to other New Orleans residents – positively improved by the year 2014. To be precise, Mundorf et al. note that there is no statistically significant difference in food access (ibid. 605). However, food access issues still remain issues in New Orleans and in cities across the country, as explained by various factors. For example, urban supermarket prices are generally higher than suburban ones, according to some studies (Walker et al. 881). Even if a neighborhood has an adequate number of markets and supermarkets, the temptation of fast food from an abundance of fast-food establishments may prevent families from eating fresh fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. at the dinner table (Parsons 2012, 41). Some surveys and personal interviews show that many residents in food deserts are knowledgeable about healthy foods’ benefits and how to cook – mostly unhealthy food, though. However, cooking classes could help provide residents information on how to prepare healthy foods in convenient and tasty ways (Parsons 39; Whittmeyer 2014). Some researchers may overlook the fact that low-income residents may not visit stores that do not accept EBT cards, which could mean they would have to travel farther to visit a store that does accept those (Parsons 42). In summary, a variety of factors explain why some low-income and racial-ethnic minority residents are living in food deserts.

Mapping Food Access and “Food Deserts”
          While the task of exploring the factors that help create food deserts was initially studied qualitatively, the growing nature of this study means that more research papers are studying this subject quantitatively (McEntee and Agyeman 165). Containing data related to demographics, availability of markets, and food access, relevant GIS data sets are becoming increasingly available for food desert researchers (ibid. 165). These conditions mean that there is opportunity for researchers to gather more empirical data – a task Gordon et al. completed, as mentioned previously. In addition, more maps can be created to show the environment injustices of food deserts – especially highlighting the food deserts that have not been researched before.

          So far, researchers have conducted mapping activities for mostly urban but some rural case study areas, including Chicago; Lansing, Michigan; and the state of Vermont, which of course includes rural areas. One mapmaking-related study is particularly revolutionary for the study of food deserts: “Gallagher’s 2006 map of Chicago food deserts is credited with spurring Congress two years later to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a national study of public access to affordable, nutritious food” (Thomson 9). As a result of her study, the USDA did file a report asserting that people located far away from fresh food stores and lacking transportation lived in “food deserts.” Likewise, professors at Michigan State University mapped pedestrian food access in Michigan’s state capital. They note that, over the past several decades, multiple supermarkets moved from inner-city to suburban areas and therefore decreased the access of food for urban residents (Goldsberry and Howard 2011). For the whole state of Vermont, McEntee and Agyeman mapped the “mean distance to food retailers within census tract[s].” The authors found that Vermont’s food deserts are scattered throughout the state and mostly in rural areas (McEntee and Agyeman 170-2). The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service interactive map provides a nationwide analysis of food deserts. The agency’s publicly-accessible map might serve as the basis for food desert research paper’s geographic analysis. With its various layers depicting distance from food stores, the USDA’s map shows that plenty of food deserts exist in states with geographically large rural areas, such as Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, and Idaho.

          While it can be argued that more mapping of food access can be done to visually highlight the issues affecting food desert areas, the aforementioned mapping research may lead to more researchers taking a cartographic approach in analyzing food desert issues. Providing optimism that there is plenty of mapmaking-related research, Walker et al. notes that cited studies in the authors’ paper (nine of them) mostly used GIS technology – compared to other methods of analysis – for their food desert papers (Walker et al. 878). Also, some researchers note that the “spatial analysis of consumer behavior” can play an important role in reevaluating and strengthening local food production and distribution networks (Gatrell et al. 1196). Therefore, the use of cartography and GIS data in food desert research can provide interesting and new insights about how government officials and residents can properly address food access issues.

          Regardless of extensive rural and urban food desert research, more researchers ideally should study more rural communities and relatively high-populated cities because not much research has been done for certain areas. Despite Indianapolis being ranked by Walk Score as the worst American city for convenient food access (Whittmeyer 2014), researchers have not conducted many studies about the city’s food deserts. Searching through Google Scholars and and a database reveals no such research for Indianapolis. However, the study of food deserts in urban and rural areas is relatively new – opportunities abound for case studies of “new” areas. The current research has proposed a variety of factors explaining why some areas are so-called food deserts: lack of transportation (sometimes unaffordable), inconsistent food supply from hunting and gardening, inconvenient location of stores, racial-ethnic and socioeconomic demographics (especially pertaining to low-income and African-American residents), high urban supermarket prices, many drive-through restaurants, and few or no local stores accepting the use of EBT cards. Researchers such as Gallagher (2006), Goldsberry and Howard (2011), and McEntee and Agyeman (2010) have already understood the beneficial, visual insights that mapping and GIS data usage can bring to the study of food access in the United States. I propose that more researchers should follow in their footsteps to study other food desert areas.

Works Cited

— Economic Research Service (ERS). “Food Access Research Atlas.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. Web.

— Gallagher, Mari. “Examining the impact of food deserts on public health in Chicago.” Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group (2006): 4-39. Web.

— Gatrell, Jay D., Neil Reid, and Paula Ross. “Local Food Systems, Deserts, and maps: The Spatial Dynamics and Policy Implications of Food Geography.” Applied Geography 31.4 (2011): 1195-6. Web.

— Goldsberry, Kirk and Phil Howard. “Mapping urban food deserts.” ScienceDaily (3 March 2011).

— Gordon, Cynthia, et al. “Measuring Food Deserts in New York City's Low-Income Neighborhoods.” Health and Place 17.2 (2011): 696-700. Web.

— Lucan, Sean C., Alison Gustafson, and Stephanie B. Jilcott Pitts. “The Concept of ‘Rural Food Deserts’ is Still Meaningful.” Childhood Obesity 8.5 (2012): 484-5. Web.

— McEntee, Jesse, and Julian Agyeman. “Towards the Development of a GIS Method for Identifying Rural Food Deserts: Geographic Access in Vermont, USA.” Applied Geography 30.1 (2010): 165-76. Web.

— Mundorf, Adrienne R., Amelia Willits-Smith, and Donald Rose. “10 Years Later: Changes in Food Access Disparities in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.” Journal of Urban Health 92.4 (2015): 605-10. Web.

— Parsons, Sarah. “An Evaluation of the Food Desert Definition in Durham, North Carolina.” Diss. Duke University, 2012. Duke University Libraries, 25 Apr. 2012. Web.

— Smith, Chery, and Lois W. Morton. “Rural Food Deserts: Low-Income Perspectives on Food Access in Minnesota and Iowa.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 41.3 (2009): 176-87. Web.

— Thomson, Susan C. “Food Deserts: Where Poor Nutrition Thrives.” Health Progress 92.6 (2011): 8-9. Web.

— Walker, Renee E., Christopher R. Keane, and Jessica G. Burke. “Disparities and Access to Healthy Food in the United States: A Review of Food Deserts Literature.” Health and Place 16.5 (2010): 876-84. Web.

— Wittmeyer, Sarah. “Indianapolis Ranks Worst in the Nation for Food Deserts.” Indiana Public Media. 30 May 2014. Web.

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