Many cities have made all-encompassing plans to address their food desert dilemmas. A massive one was conceived some years back by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) in Portland, Oregon. The document began by saying, “This project considers food access largely as an issue of socioeconomic equity, and its strategies and recommendations reflect this.”
At the same time, it makes some admissions up front that seem to negate its very reason for being:
Overall, Portland is well served by the private market and does not suffer the sort of “food deserts” that impact other cities. Most parts of the City are accessible, with a number of food points offering a fairly affordable range of food.
In Portland, areas with poor and very poor food access are largely located in neighborhoods with high median household income. Residents in these neighborhoods are unlikely to perceive their food access as poor because they rely on auto travel to do their food shopping and are comfortable doing so.
That last sentence is key to understanding one of the basic problems involved in assessing the extent, or even the existence, of food deserts. In order to compare between places, or between conditions in the same place at different times, a unit of measurement has to be agreed upon. Several metrics are used. One is the distance between home and the nearest decently equipped food store.
It is immediately possible to see why this alone is not a good criterion. How can people be said to have very poor food access — just because there is no market nearby — when they have cars? For many, it might even be much more convenient to have a grocery store located near their workplace, so they can shop on the way home and avoid making a special trip.
Here’s another thing. Generally, neighborhoods with high median household incomes are not particularly eager to have grocery stores within a certain distance, because they tend to be very picky about maintaining their residential identity. Nobody wants a mega-mart in their neighborhood. They don’t want the traffic, or the transient strangers bunking overnight in the parking lot. The lack of nearby retail stores is not a bug, it’s intentional.
If that’s the situation in a prosperous neighborhood, how about a low-income area, like a housing complex? The BPS organizers invited Spanish-speaking mothers of young children to be interviewed about the importance of the presence of a retail food outlet nearby. Their neighborhood did in fact contain two full-service grocery stores and a number of small ethnically-oriented markets.
Was that satisfactory? As it turns out, the answer was no. According to the report:
They were willing to travel a distance of 5 to 8 miles in order to shop stores perceived as more affordable. They typically shopped for groceries every two weeks by car. One woman said, and others agreed, that they would pay $200 at the nearby full-service grocery stores for the same amount of food they could buy for $150 at a more affordable grocery store. This reflects a 33 percent difference in price in favor of the lower priced store.
When analysts actually compared the price structures of the neighborhood groceries to the more distant store, they found the difference to be 29 percent. So the women’s estimate was pretty darn close, and the savings definitely worth spending a bit of extra gas money and time to procure.
Still, one of the Portland recommendations was to provide subsidies to entice “food points” both large and small to locate in underserved areas of the city. But when municipal governments offer incentives to businesses, that generally means tax breaks and other financial favors that wind up being paid for by all the taxpayers. Why not just take that same money and buy everybody a car?
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