USDA Looks at What Makes a Food Desert

Articles
September 12, 2012

USDA Looks at What Makes a Food Desert

USDA's ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE has identified more than 6,500 food desert tracts in the U.S. based on 2000 CENSUS and 2006 data on locations of supermarkets, supercenters, and large grocery stores, reports The Food Institute this week.

USDA’s ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE has identified more than 6,500 food desert tracts in the U.S. based on 2000 CENSUS and 2006 data on locations of supermarkets, supercenters, and large grocery stores, reports The Food Institute this week.

USDA examined the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of these tracts to see how they differ from other census tracts and the extent to which these differences influence food desert status. The study considers supermarkets, supercenters, and large grocery stores in measuring access to healthful and affordable foods.

Relative to all other census tracts, USDA found that food desert tracts tend to have smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment.

Census tracts with higher poverty rates are more likely to be food deserts than otherwise similar low-income census tracts in rural and in very dense (highly populated) urban areas.

For less dense urban areas, census tracts with higher concentrations of minority populations are more likely to be food deserts, while tracts with substantial decreases in minority populations between 1990 and 2000 were less likely to be identified as food deserts in 2000.

What Did the Study Find?
Areas with higher poverty rates are more likely to be food deserts regardless of rural or urban designation. This result is especially true in very dense urban areas where other population characteristics such as racial composition and unemployment rates are not predictors of food desert status because they tend to be similar across tracts.

In all but very dense urban areas, the higher the percentage of minority population, the more likely the area is to be a food desert.
• Residents in the Northeast are less likely to live far from a store than their counterparts in other regions of the country with similar income levels.
• Rural areas experiencing population growth are less likely to be food deserts.

For the most part, the results suggest that differences between food desert tracts and other tracts are consistent regardless of rural or urban designation. In general, food desert tracts tend to have smaller populations, and abandoned or vacant homes are more prevalent in these tracts than in their counterparts.

According to the report:  The “study confirms poverty’s primary role in the evolution of food deserts.  Our statistical analyses build on previous research by examining the characteristics of food deserts, defined on a national level. The analyses also provide additional insight by investigating changes in these characteristics over time. Results from our descriptive analysis contrasting food desert tracts and other tracts support much of the previous research, concluding that minority status and poverty are more prevalent in areas with limited access to healthy and affordable food. Observation of three survey periods also illuminates the persistence of low-access and low income conditions in food deserts. As community development and infrastructure investment are neglected, residents remain in impoverished conditions.”

USDA found a number of characteristics that are associated with low access and low income, econometric analysis isolates only a few of these as strong, consistent predictors of food deserts. Different factors are more important in rural areas than in urban areas, and in very dense versus less dense urban areas. When viewed in conjunction with the importance of the poverty rate at a single point in time, this insignificance provides further argument for the persistent effects of poverty: a tract with high poverty rates at a given point is much more likely to be a food desert despite any changes in the poverty rate over time.

The complete report can be downloaded at http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/883903/err140.pdf.