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According to Wikipedia, a food desert is a low income area where people there cannot access high quality or nutritional food, due to either a lack of transportation or a lack of real grocery stores.

My question is, are food deserts statistically proven to exist due to a significant inability to obtain quality food by low income communities within the United States? Or are they an exaggeration of data?

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    @ESultanik 2-4 miles is not very far. Is that really outside the range people consider reasonable to purchase food? I understand that this range is reduced by not having access to an automobile, but that's still hardly a long walk. Or is this a matter of the implied privilege of the modern day? – John Rhoades Jun 28 '11 at 19:35
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    @John: You are right, it's not very far. The problem is that, at least in urban environments, there are usually much more convenient and much less healthy options that are closer. Why would I walk 4+ miles to buy some veggies, fruit, and raw ingredients if I could walk to the end of my block and get an already prepared fast food hamburger or fried chicken for likely the same price? And if one is already obese, that 4 mile walk is even harder. – ESultanik Jun 28 '11 at 19:40
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    You know, there's such thing as busses, bicycles (4 miles on a bicycle is nothing), and other wheeled things even for people without a car. Or people pooling to take a trip with a neighbour who HAS a car and paying that neighbour for gas. As usual, this is merely about excuses for people being mostly lazy. – user5341 Jun 28 '11 at 20:29
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    @ESultanik - are you implying that those aren't the same people who can easily find a way to go somewhere to, say, go clubbing or pick up chicks etc..? Camden has public transportation. – user5341 Jun 28 '11 at 20:30
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    I think everyone is forgetting about the Delaware river here... You can't walk it and I don't see any side walks on the commodore barry or the betsy ross bridges... plus those bridges are ALWAYS jam packed so in this case 4 miles is not just 4 miles, you have to actually get into philly which can take an hour or more during the day just to get accrossed the bridge... and god forbid there is an accident (anywhere near philly!) because then traffic will start being routed through the open routes and exponentially increase your travel time. Yeah philly sucks I drive through it every day... – Supercereal Jun 29 '11 at 14:45
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Nearly 13% of all households in Washington D.C. were struggling with hunger in 2007–2009. The district is divided into wards, much like townships. According to D.C. Hunger Solutions,

Wards 7 and 8, which have the District's highest poverty rates, also have the city's highest obesity rates and are home to large "food deserts." Of the city's 43 full-service grocery stores*, only two are located in Ward 4, four in Ward 7, and three in Ward 8. By contrast, Ward 3 - the highest-income Ward - has eleven full-service stores.

* see the second comment, below, for my interpretation of "full-service grocery store".

Ward 8's poverty rate in 2009 was 35%. I couldn't find an exact statistic for the area of Ward 8, but it appears to be at least 1/8th the area of the entire district, which is 100 square miles (260km2). Assuming each of the ward's three grocery stores services an equal 100/8/3 ≈ 4 square mile area, I think it is plausible that a good number of the ward's residents live at least one mile from a supermarket.

Edit: The original question is just asking if food deserts exist. The problem is that the definition of a "food desert",

a low income area where people there cannot access high quality or nutritional food

is a bit subjective: One can always have access to high quality or nutritional food if one is willing to spend enough time to travel to it. If a person lives a couple miles away from a grocery store but has "access" via expensive (to them) public transport, does that constitute "access"? Technically, of course, yes. But what I think AgentKC is really asking—and the question I have been trying to answer—is: "Is there any statistical correlation between proximity to full-service grocery stores, obesity, and poverty?" I think the answer to that is "yes". Answering why is a much more difficult (and perhaps open) question.

Here are some more points that came up in the discussion:

  • As John Rhoads pointed out, a mile walk to a grocery store isn't really very far. The problem is that, at least in urban environments, there are usually much more convenient and much less healthy options that are closer. Why would I walk 2+ miles to buy some veggies, fruit, and raw ingredients if I could walk to the end of my block and get an already prepared fast food hamburger or fried chicken for likely the same price? (When I lived in a not-so-savory part of Philadelphia, I could buy a whole fried chicken at the end of my block for the same price as a raw chicken from the 1-mile-away grocery store). And if one is already obese, that walk to the store is even harder.
  • As DVK pointed out, many of these urban centers have extensive public transport systems that would allow carless residents to commute back-and-forth to a supermarket. Here are some counter-arguments:
    • For people that live below the poverty line (the average per capita income in Camden, NJ, for example, is less than $12k), a public transit ride for as little as $3 is a significant expense. And as Erik Harris noted, it is likely more expensive in DC.
    • How many shopping bags can one person reasonably carry home without a car? Enough for a week's worth of food for a family of four? I know that at least extrapolating from the way I shop, I'd have to make multiple trips per week to feed a family of 4, which is a further expense.
    • As DVK rightly noted, many of these factors are likely social/cultural in nature, however, that only speaks to the underlying cause; it does not change the fact that there is a correlation between availability of produce, obesity, and poverty.
  • Townsend, et al., did a study on the correlation between food insecurity and obesity. Here is a summary from Oregon State University:

    [Obesity] may also result from periodic episodes of food insecurity. For many people, food stamps and money for food run out before the end of the month. Among respondents to the 2004 Oregon Hunger Factors Assessment, 95 percent ran out of food stamps at least 1 week before the end of the month. When money and food stamps become available again, some may overeat low-cost, high-calorie foods that have limited nutrient density. This could result in gradual weight gain over time, especially for mothers with dependents in the household.

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    I'm not familiar with the term "full-service grocery store", and it is not defined in the link. Is it a US-term? Does it refer to one of those giant hyper-enormous supermarkets? If so, I think >98% of Australians lives more than one mile from such a store, and yet they seem to be able to provide nutrition for themselves. Am I jumping to conclusions? – Oddthinking Jun 28 '11 at 20:12
  • There are lots of stores—especially in big US cities—that call themselves "grocery stores" that are really bodegas or convenience stores; they don't sell much in the way of groceries, and usually don't sell anything in the way of fresh produce or raw meats. I consider a "full-service grocery store" to be any store that sells fresh produce, raw meats, and perhaps fish. – ESultanik Jun 28 '11 at 20:18
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    -1. Washington DC has one of the best public transportation systems in the country. If someone is not lazy, they can easily get to a grocery store and buy food, even if it's not very close. And it costs LESS to buy fresh food than to buy from Mickey Ds. Let's call it for what it is - there are areas where culture is such that making an extra effort to better your own life is NOT part of culture. Add up the narcotics budget spent by population of any of those poor Wards, and you likely end up with enough to feed every "underpriviledged" kid in the country, never mind in DC. – user5341 Jun 28 '11 at 20:34
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    DC also has one of the most expensive public transportation systems in the country. It's stuck between three separate jurisdictions (DC, MD, VA) that all essentially say "you pay for it!" (when I worked in DC, my daily public transportation commuting cost was just under $12.) The result is a system that's expensive and a bit dilapidated (hardly "one of the best in the country," at least if you're doing apples-to-apples comparisons of metro regions with subway systems). – Erik Harris Jun 29 '11 at 0:55
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    ESultanik is correct though. The only thing that can really be measured scientifically is a statistically correlation. The cause is a more subjective (and controversial) answer that is likely beyond the scope of this site. – TheEnigmaMachine Jun 29 '11 at 14:34
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Wikipedia has a number of links to reports by reliable organizations.

Here is a good one:

Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2 percent of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.

But also:

The current state of research is insufficient to conclusively determine whether some areas with limited access have inadequate access.

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    @DJC - they don't have access to public transportation? – user5341 Jun 28 '11 at 20:35
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    I'm not completely convinced by all their arguments myself. – DJClayworth Jun 28 '11 at 20:48
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    If you're young, fit and single then walking a mile (which would take even you fifteen minutes carrying groceries - and another fifteen back, let's not forget) is easy. If you're old, have health issues or young kids, then two miles is a challenge. – DJClayworth Jun 29 '11 at 14:24
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    @vartec, @DJ, @jae: Just to note, a 10 minute walking mile is nearly superhuman. That's 6 mph, which if you set a treadmill at, is really more of a slow trot than anything else. At best it's a power walk, which can be exerting in its own right. A pretty darn fast walk would be 12 minute miles (5 mph), and for most people even a 15 minute mile is a decent pace (4 mph). When backpacking, if you're hitting 15 minute miles, you're doing a good job. I think a 20 minute mile is pretty accurate for how most people actually move. Just go on Google Maps and look at the time: goo.gl/hYtFO – erekalper Jul 1 '11 at 14:34
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    It's very easy to judge a mile to be "easy" and "not a problem" when you usually only take a couple of minutes to do that in a car. It's something else entirely when you're walking. And another thing entirely when it's something you need to do at the end of a long day and the weather is crap. But again, these are not even things anyone here has considered in anything but an abstract concept. – Ernie Jul 29 '11 at 23:50

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