Conquering Food Deserts Through Planning and Legislation

Matthew Robare
November 16, 2023

Food insecurity and health problems are two areas that can be resolved through smart transportation planning and legislation targeting food deserts.

In many communities around the country, few people are outright starving. However, many lack access to fresh foods, instead having to rely on highly processed pre-packaged foods, fast food, and canned goods.

According to CNBC, 19 million Americans live in a food desert.

In such large quantities, these processed foods lead to health issues — the extra sugar, fat, and salt they contain contributes to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems that often compound each other.

They may also hold back children’s brain development, reducing learning and causing behavior problems.

This food is also more expensive, increasing household costs, because it doesn’t come from grocery stores but from convenience stores and dollar stores. 

Planning around food deserts

Food deserts are one of the biggest obstacles to implementing 15 minute city planning, where household necessities are no more than a 15 minute walk away in a typical neighborhood.

Most mainstream grocery stores cluster on the outskirts of cities, while the ones that enter neighborhoods are often specialist or high end stores, like Whole Foods.

One of the issues is that American cities are not dense enough to support so many grocery stores – American grocery stores seem to enjoy a one size fits all policy, refusing to vary their store designs. Yet this does not seem to be a problem in Europe, where smaller markets are common. 

Poverty and food deserts

Suburban and rural communities have other problems, of which poverty is the foremost.

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, rural towns have lost retail to businesses like Family Dollar, while other retailers are increasingly consolidating operations in a single location.

In a vicious cycle, consolidation both enables and is enabled by car dependence. When land is cheap and a business expects customers to arrive by car, then the main cost is labor.

As such, it makes fiscal sense to have one large store employing 50 people rather than five smaller stores employing 20. But this comes at a cost to people who cannot drive or afford to own cars, or afford to drive long distances to grocery stores and back.

Another issue is that food problems in rural areas have largely been ignored by politicians, activists, and media — where urban food deserts dominate discussions and non-profit focuses.

According to Partners for Rural Transformation, around 11% of Americans were food insecure in 2019. Yet in digging into the crosstabs, 12.5% of the people and 87 percent of the nation’s food-insecure counties were rural. 

Transportation policies to upend food deserts

Transportation policy has a big role in both creating and ending food deserts, although the issues extend further.

A grocery store is unlikely to locate in a city neighborhood because land is expensive and cities require high numbers of free parking spaces be provided, greatly increasing costs.

Many grocery stores also object to renting retail space, which may be needed to establish a business in a city. Nor are they interested in building apartments over their stores, which can offset the higher costs.

In rural areas, grocery stores sometimes try a lean model, where smaller stores are staffed by a handful of people.

The development of self-driving vehicles, if they pan out, would also change the economics, since they would make grocery delivery available over a much wider area for much cheaper. 

While there is some evidence that the mere presence of grocery stores doesn’t change behaviors, but it’s a start.

Having the option to walk to a grocery store can reduce car trips, improve health and air quality, anchor other retail spaces, and serve as community gathering spots.

Ultimately, they are absolutely essential to making walkable neighborhoods.

The line from transportation equity to healthier communities is threaded through the eradication of food deserts.

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