[OPE] Urban "food deserts"

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Fri Aug 14 2009 - 11:11:03 EDT

A trip to a city grocery store seems like a small thing. The last time you
went it took an hour or so, right? You probably stuck your spouse with the
kids some Saturday while you shopped, then ferried home the heavy bags by
car. Not Lesli Calderon. She might as well live in a desert. The closest
grocery stores are more like mirages. No bus lines or sidewalks lead to one
of the two in her neighborhood, and Calderon can't drive there because she
can't afford a car. She could take a bus to the other, but she can't afford
the food. So when Calderon's cupboards run bare, she hops a bus in Northeast
Portland's Cully neighborhood. And she rides it. And rides it. Until she
reaches Clackamas County, and WinCo, 10 miles away. It can take four hours,
round trip. When getting to market takes this much effort, epidemiologists
consider it a threat to our collective health.

Urban food deserts - areas where people have low or no access to food
shops - exist in major cities, according to research published in the open
access publication International Journal of Health Geographics, with
important implications for public health policies. In an exploration of food
deserts in the Canadian city of London, Ontario, Kristian Larsen and Jason
Gilliland of The University of Western Ontario Geography Department mapped
and compared supermarket locations in the city in 1961 and 2005 and assess
the changing levels of residents' access. Gilliland explained: "More and
more supermarkets are building in newer suburbs and smaller food shops are
disappearing from older neighbourhoods leaving food deserts in their wake.
Poor people with no car can be severely adversely affected by living in food
deserts and are more likely to suffer from bad health and low quality of
life with diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Poor inner
city residents have the poorest access to supermarkets and Central and East
London were the worst affected." http://www.physorg.com/news127719776.html

For years, major supermarket chains have been criticized for abandoning
densely populated, largely black and Latino communities in cities like
Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis and Newark, N.J. - contributing to what many
experts call food deserts. Many of these communities are, quite literally,
starving for broader and healthier food options beyond the seemingly
ubiquitous fast-food chains and corner stores selling barely a handful of
fruits and vegetables - at relatively high prices. Simply put, people eat
what is convenient and affordable - and if it's fat-heavy fast food, that's
what they'll chow down on. The prevalence of obesity among American youth
overall increased to 16.3% in 2006, from 5% in 1980, but some 28% of
non-Hispanic black females between ages 12 and 19 are obese, as are about
20% of Mexican-American females (the statistic for non-Hispanic white
females in the same age group is 14.5%). In congressional testimony earlier
this year, a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention identified food deserts as a cause of these grim statistics.
Experts have declared roughly half of Detroit (pop. 916,000) a food desert
and estimate that nearly 633,000 of Chicago's 3 million residents live in
neighborhoods either lacking or far away from conventional supermarkets like
Jewel, Pathmark and Winn-Dixie. The paucity of affordable, healthy food
options in urban communities is ironic in a country with an abundance of
food. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1900947,00.html

Major grocery chains, which generally operate with thin profit margins, say
doing business in Detroit is no-win situation. High employee turnover, cost
of security and loss from theft are often cited. The city's comparably low
income rates preclude selling an abundance of high-profit, upscale items.
(...) Within its 139 square miles, Detroit has 155 grocery stores, defined
as various-size food markets with meat and produce. The city also has 1,000
convenience stores -- including gas stations and party stores -- that sell
some type of food. A 2003 University of Michigan study of Detroit
supermarkets showed there were only five grocery stores in Detroit with over
20,000 square feet. The report concluded that the city could support 41
supermarkets with at least 40,000 square feet of space based on its
population and spending habits. Over the years, national chains have
located in Detroit, only to pull up stakes and flee. There are a multitude
of reasons, according to retail analysts, with the major deterrent being the
high cost of doing business in the city. "Sometimes even the people that
live in the neighborhood don't feel safe shopping in the store," said David
J. Livingston, a supermarket expert from Wisconsin. "They'll drive right
past that Detroit store to go to a suburban store where they feel more

Here are some reasons cited by national retail experts on why brand
supermarket chains avoid Detroit:

*Net profits at supermarkets run 1-5 percent of revenue. If shoplifting by
customers and employees runs 7-8 percent, the store is doomed to lose money.
*High cost of maintaining security for the stores, something most suburban
locations don't need. Shopping carts often disappear, at a cost of $300 per
*Personal safety for employees, with robberies, thefts and assaults both
inside and outside the stores.
*Difficulty finding qualified managers willing to run Detroit stores. Most
prefer the suburban locations. Problems seeking qualified workers for the
stores. It can be a major undertaking to find employees who can pass
reading, writing and math tests along with credit, criminal background and
drug tests. And there is a constant turnover of employees at stores in the
city. "It's a human resource nightmare," said David J. Livingston, a
supermarket expert from Wisconsin.
*Declining population. No national chain wants to move into an area that is
losing population. Lower per-capita income. That means less expenditure on
*Racism and discrimination accusations. If the store raises its prices
because of higher costs of doing business, it is often charged with gouging
the poor. A well-publicized violent crime or armed robbery can cost the
store 10 percent of its business. Three such crimes, experts say, and the
store may as well close its doors.
Source: Supermarket experts

It's a theme that comes up again and again in conversations in Detroit.
There isn't a single major non-discount chain supermarket in the city now,
forcing residents to buy food from corner stores or discount chains. Often
less healthy, less varied, or more expensive food. As the area's economy
worsens --unemployment was over 16% in July -- food stamp applications and
pantry visits have surged. Detroiters have responded to this crisis. Huge
amounts of vacant land has led to a resurgence in urban farming. Volunteers
at local food pantries have also increased. But the food crunch is
intensifying, and spreading to people not used to dealing with hunger. As
middle class workers lose their jobs, the same folks that used to donate to
soup kitchens and pantries have become their fastest growing set of

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