A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from October 12, 2009
Food Desert

The term “food desert” refers to an area with little access to healthy food. The term is often used to describe urban areas with many fast food restaurants, but few full service supermarkets that offer wide selections of fruits and vegetables.

“Food desert” is said to have been coined by a resident of public sector housing in the west of Scotland in the early 1990s. By 1998, several “food desert” papers appeared in scholarly journals. By the 2000s, “food desert” began to be applied to inner cities in the United States.

A geographical area that is full of poor food choices (such as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores selling processed foods) has been called a “food swamp.”


Wikipedia: Food desert
A food desert is a district with little or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet, but often served by plenty of fast food restaurants.

The concept of ‘access’ may be interpreted in three separate ways.

‘Physical access’ to shops can be difficult if the shops are distant, the shopper is elderly or infirm, the area has many hills, public transport links are poor, and the consumer has no car. Also, the shop may be across a busy road, difficult to cross with children or with underpasses that some fear to use because of a crime risk. For some, such as the disabled, the inside of the shop may be hard to access physically if there are steps up, or the interior is cramped with no room for walking aids. Carrying fresh food home may also be hard for some.

‘Financial access’ is difficult if the consumer lacks the money to buy healthy foods (generally more expensive, calorie for calorie, than less healthy, sugary, and fatty ‘junk foods’ ) or if the shopper cannot afford the bus fare to remote shops selling fresh foods and instead uses local fast food outlets. Other forms of financial access barriers may be inability to afford storage space for food, or for the very poor, living in temporary accommodation that does not offer good cooking facilities.

Thirdly, the mental attitude or food knowledge of the consumer may prevent them accessing fresh vegetables. They may lack cooking knowledge, or have the idea that eating a healthy diet isn’t important.

In some urban areas, grocery stores have withdrawn alongside residents that have fled to the suburbs (see urban sprawl). Low income earners and senior citizens who remain find healthy foods either unavailable or inaccessible as a result of high prices and/or unreachable locations.

In rural areas local fresh food outlets have closed leaving shoppers without cars in these areas with difficult access to healthy foods, as rural bus services have also declined. Whilst the idea of ‘food deserts’ in the early 21st century has mainly an urban flavour, the first case studies into difficulties faced by consumers accessing healthy foods were made in rural English villages. The Women’s Institute looked at the plight of elderly car-less widows left stranded by closure of village shops and withdrawal of bus services as far back as the 1970s.

The term ‘desert’ was first used to describe an urban environment lacking in certain facilities as far back as 1973 when J BAINES (The Environment) wrote “The large suburban estates that are a recent feature of the townscape are epitomised by the regular rows of similarly styled houses that have earned for themselves the title of suburban deserts.  They often lack the shops, churches, public houses, and social centres that allow a community life to develop”.

Food Desert Website
What is a ‘food desert’?
The actual term ‘food desert’ is quoted, by S CUMMINS (British Medical Journal, 2002, Vol.325, p.436), as having been originally used by a resident of a public sector housing scheme in the west of Scotland in the early 1990s.

1990s definitions of ‘food deserts’
1) Low Income Project Team (1996) ‘areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food’.

2) The Independent (11 June 1997) ‘food deserts were those areas of inner cities where cheap nutritious food is virtually unobtainable.  Car-less residents, unable to reach out-of-town supermarkets, depend on the corner shop where prices are high, products are processed and fresh fruit and vegetables are poor or non-existent’.

3) The Observer (13 September 1998) ‘many poor housing estates were left as food deserts by the closure of local food shops’ and that in the few local food shops left, prices were up to 60% more than in the supermarkets.

4) The Guardian II (17 March 1999) ‘on the poorer estates of Coventry, low cost, good quality, food is not available to the poorest.  These people ‘either have to shop at expensive local stores or pay for transport and lug small children for miles and back with shopping’.

The Food Desert Website
We define Food Deserts as large and isolated geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are absent or distant. Our research has demonstrated the statistical link between Food Deserts and worse diet-related health outcomes, after controlling for other key factors. We also developed a Food Balance Score to show the relationsihp between access to mainstream and fringe food providers (such as fast food) and correlated that to public health. Our work has been covered by CNN and other world-wide media, and public officials, policy makers, grassroots community groups, and major corporations continue to respond to it. See our main website and go to projects for more details.

The Independent (UK)
More equality - just what the doctor ordered
Health is not only a matter for the NHS - it reflects housing, unemployment, poverty. Labour is revisiting the Black report of 1980, which aimed to reduce inequalities which condemn the poor to bad health, says Jeremy Laurance

Jeremy Laurance
Wednesday, 11 June 1997
Tessa Jowell learnt a new phrase last week: the “food desert”. Food deserts, the minister of public health was told at a private seminar in London, are those areas of inner cities where cheap, nutritious food is virtually unobtainable. Car-less residents, unable to reach out-of- town supermarkets, depend on the corner shop where prices are high, products are processed and fresh fruit and vegetables poor or non-existent.

The Independent (UK)
Just a single orange in the fridge: the facts of life in a ‘food desert’
BREADLINE BRITAIN
Jack O’Sullivan
Friday, 16 October 1998
(...)
Deborah Small and her family are living in what Sir Donald Acheson, a former government chief medical officer, has labelled a “food desert” where many of the poorest people find it impossible to buy cheap, varied food.

OCLC WorldCat record
Oasis in the food desert: A community food project is an oasis in the food desert of the Whitehawk estate, one of Brighton’s candidates for the new deal for communities
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: HOUSING -LONDON- CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF HOUSING- 34, no. 9, (1998): 24-25
Database: British Library Serials

OCLC WorldCat record
EDITORIAL - Food deserts: What’s in a name?
Author: Margaret Whitehead
Publisher: London : Central Council for Health Education,
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: The Health education journal. 57, no. 3, (1998): 189
Database: ArticleFirst

OCLC WorldCat record
Food deserts - fact or fiction?
Author: C J Strugnell
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: NUTRITION AND FOOD SCIENCE, no. 6, (1998): 349-350
Database: British Library Serials

OCLC WorldCat record
How to survive in a food desert - A London co-op helps the poor to eat better
Publisher: London : New Statesman Ltd., 1996-
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: New statesman. (June 25, 2001): 26
Database: ArticleFirst

OCLC WorldCat record
Life in a ‘Food Desert’
Author: Amanda Whelan; Neil Wrigley; Daniel Warm; Elizabeth Cannings
Publisher: Sage Publications
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: Urban Studies, 39, no. 11 (2002): 2083-2100
Database: ArticleFirst
Summary: This paper forms part of the ‘Food Deserts in British Cities’ project. It reports on the findings of a series of focus groups conducted with residents in the Seacroft ‘food desert’ (in Leeds) in the period prior to a major improvement in their food retail accessibility. The paper explores individual food shopping behaviour, consumption patterns and attitudes towards a healthy diet and, in so doing, begins to develop an understanding of how different demographic groups adapt to living within a ‘food desert’. The focus is on the perceived economic and physical constraints of residents in the area, but interwoven with this are other considerations such as motivation to consider health, family responsibilities and individual smoking status.

OCLC WorldCat record
Extending the food desert debate
Author: Graham Clarke; David Bennison
Publisher: [Bradford, England] : Emerald Group Pub., 2004.
Series: International journal of retail & distribution management, v. 32, no. 2, 2004, special issue
Edition/Format: eBook : English

Time magazine
Can America’s Urban Food Deserts Bloom?
By Steven Gray / Chicago
Tuesday, May. 26, 2009
Inside the supermarket, uniformed workers are stacking pineapples into neat rows across from bundles of fresh mustard greens, tamarind pods and nopalitos — sliced cactus ears common in Mexican dishes. In much of the country, Farmers Best Market would not be an extraordinary sight. But here on 47th Street, a gritty stretch of Chicago’s South Side flush with Golden Arches and purveyors of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, the store is an oasis. It’s also raising an intriguing proposition: Can an inner-city supermarket profitably specialize in fresh produce and meats — and, ultimately, be a model solution to urban America’s health crisis?

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.

New York (NY) Daily News
Stringer wants food markets added to list of builder studies
BY Frank Lombardi
DAILY NEWS CITY HALL BUREAU
Monday, June 8th 2009, 12:22 AM
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is starting a food fight he hopes will spill over to targeted neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

He wants to add the availability - make that, scarcity - of food markets in a neighborhood as another mandatory factor developers would have to study and address when they try to build in certain areas.

Stringer’s food infrastructure requirement would be added to those already covered by Environmental Impact Statements, known as EIS.
(...)
As envisioned by Stringer, his new EIS requirement would apply to these “food desert” neighborhoods: Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan; the South Bronx, Williamsbridge/Wakefield and portions of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx; Jamaica and Far Rockway in Queens; Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and St. George and Stapleton on Staten Island. 

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Monday, October 12, 2009 • Permalink