A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada and published in the April 18, 2008 edition of the International Journal of Health Geographics, suggests the growing move in recent decades by food retailers to open stores in the suburbs in North America and the United Kingdom has contributed to the emergence of urban "food deserts," or disadvantaged areas of cities with relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food.
The paper explores the evolution of food deserts in London, Ontario, Canada, a midsized Canadian city, by using a geographic information system (GIS) to map the precise locations of the city's supermarkets in 1961 and in 2005. The researchers then use multiple techniques of network analysis to access the changing levels of urban supermarket access in relation to neighborhood location, socioeconomic variables, and access to public transit.
The study's findings suggest residents of inner-city neighborhoods of low socioeconomic status have the poorest access to supermarkets.
Further, the study says spatial inequalities in access to supermarkets has increased over time, particularly in the inner-city neighborhoods of Central and East London, Ontario, Canada, where distinct urban food deserts now exist.
The researchers, Kristian Larson and Jason Gilliland, conclude in the paper that although recent studies in larger cities in Canada have found that those cities don't have "food deserts," their research demonstrates such areas where people have limited access to affordable and healthy food do exist in inner-city Central and East London Ontario.
Although the study as conducted can't be completely generalized to other cities in other countries like the United States, it is important because its methodology can be used to study the "food desert" phenomenon in urban region's globally.
In the U.S., the issue of "food deserts" in urban inner-cities is a hot topic of discussion and debate. "Food deserts" been documented to exist in U.S. urban regions ranging from Detroit, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio, to Los Angeles and San Francisco in California.
In fact, one of Tesco's strategies with its small-format, convenience-oriented discount grocery and fresh foods Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores is to locate the markets in urban areas where neighborhood residents are under-served by grocery stores that offer a decent selection of basic grocery and fresh foods' items at reasonable prices.
Thus far Tesco has opened two of its 61 Fresh & Easy stores in urban areas which can be defined as "food deserts." Those stores are in Los Angeles and in Compton, which is located in South Central LA.
Additionally, the grocer is planning to open a store early next year in the Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood in San Francisco, an area whose residents have long been under-served by grocery stores offering reasonably-priced groceries and fresh foods. In fact, the city of San Francisco recently released a study in which it said the neighborhood's residents spend about $14 million a year at grocery stores outside the neighborhood or in nearby citys.
Tesco also plans to open one or more Fresh & Easy grocery stores in "food desert" neighborhoods in Oakland, California next year, as well as one market in a neighborhood in Sacramento, whose residents are lacking grocery stores that offer reasonably-priced basic grocery items and fresh foods.
The grocery chain has said it plans to open many more of its small-format Fresh & Easy stores in under-served neighborhoods in Southern California and the Phoenix, Arizona Metro region.
As Fresh & Easy Buzz has written before, we think the "food desert" strategy offers much potential for Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. Few if any U.S-based supermarket chains or even independents have been willing to locate stores in these under-served inner-city neighborhoods.
For example, the Compton city council and community groups in that Southern California city tried for years to get every chain and independent with stores in Southern California to put a store in the location where Fresh & Easy opened earlier this year. None would do it. Tesco did.
Similarly, the city of San Francisco and a coalition of community groups tried for over a decade to get a supermarket company to open a store in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood where a new, 15,000 square foot Fresh & Easy grocery market is currently being built. None would do so, not even local independent grocers.
Further, we believe the "food desert" strategy has the potential to bring Tesco lots of good will for its Fresh & Easy grocery stores in the Western U.S. if its implemented in a more than selective manner.
City officials in Compton for example have praised the grocer as the only food retailer who would listen seriously to their arguments for building a supermarket in the neighborhood where the Fresh & Easy store is now open and operating. In fact, the city of Compton even gave Tesco numerous tax breaks and other incentives to encourage the retailer to locate a grocery market in the struggling city.
San Francisco officials and activists in Bayview-Hunters Point have similar praise for the United Kingdom-based Tesco.
Locally-based Safeway Stores and many other grocers said "no thanks" to building a new store in the low-income neighborhood. However, Tesco said yes, and "they even see it as an opportunity like we do", San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told us recently.
We will watch with interest as to how many more of its Fresh & Easy grocery stores Tesco locates in lower-income, inner-city "food deserts." There remain a number of neighborhoods in Southern California (especially in Los Angeles) for example in need of grocery stores offering basic groceries and fresh foods at reasonable prices.
The "food desert" strategy is really a niche Tesco could own with its Fresh & Easy stores in the next couple years, since very few if any grocers in the Western USA want to open stores in the lower income, inner-city neighborhoods.
Readers' Note: You can read an abstract of the study, "Mapping the evolution of 'food deserts' in a Canadian City: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005," here. You can also obtain a provisional PDF version of the complete study at the link above.
Additionally, for some further reading on the "food desert" phenomenon, we suggest this piece by Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, Ph.D and R.D, an Extension educator and Assistant Professor at Ohio State University Extension in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.