In U.S. News & World Report: Do You Live in a Food Desert?


A home’s value is based on how much a buyer would likely be willing to pay to live there. It’s not just about how the home itself appeals to a buyer, but also what the neighborhood has to offer residents – whether it’s quiet suburban streets or a downtown locale with easy access to countless forms of entertainment.

In both scenarios, living within walking distance to a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s is typically considered highly desirable among homebuyers willing to pay a premium for close proximity to high-end fresh food.

But what about the other end of the spectrum, when living in a certain neighborhood means you’re farther from healthy food options?

In a report on how access to fresh food affects property values, real estate information company Zillow defines food deserts as areas “located more than half a mile from fresh, whole food sources and have higher than usual concentrations of poverty and low-income households.” According to Zillow, 47.3 million people in the U.S. – 20 percent of the nonrural population – meet this standard for living in a food desert.

Not only are grocery stores and supermarkets absent in food deserts, but restaurants offering fresh food options are also often missing from the neighborhood. As a result, low-income residents who don’t have a car to easily reach the nearest fresh food option have to resort to convenience stores and fast food for their primary food sources, often leading to a diet low in nutritional value.

The negative effects of a food desert continue to hurt neighborhood residents in economic ways. According to the Zillow report, homes in nonrural food deserts are valued 17.7 percent lower than areas with nearby fresh food.

And the effects of living in a food desert aren’t just monetary. For example, when a major store closes, it affects how residents view their neighborhood. Charles Platkin, executive director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, equates a community supermarket to a major department store in a mall, serving as an anchor to other retailers.

“A community can be defined by its anchors, just like a mall can be defined by its anchors,” Platkin says. When an anchor store closes, it lessens the appeal to other nearby retailers and businesses that know they won’t benefit from customers of that store.

The success or failure of an anchor supermarket can also have a psychological impact on the community, Platkin argues. If a store closes, residents feel there is less faith and investment in the neighborhood – and the opposite is often true when a new store opens.

Platkin uses a Whole Foods in his neighborhood near Union Square in New York as an example. While he rarely shops at the store, “if it closed, it would bother me. I would feel like something was being taken away,” he says.

Neighborhood revitalization is a tricky balance: Private development is key for economic growth, but it’s also important to avoid pricing out existing residents, which is often referred to as gentrification.

Beyond Housing, a St. Louis- area not-for-profit organization aimed at creating community growth and affordable housing opportunities, built a supermarket in Pagedale, Missouri, where the city’s last grocery store closed in the 1960s. With the goal of providing residents with fresh food and an affordable option based on the area’s income level, the store opened as a Save-A-Lot and continues to thrive today.

Finding the right supermarket brand, developing the property and negotiating financing and rent for the store was “a relatively complex process, but certainly one we think is replicable,” says Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing.

Here are four tips for getting on the right track to a healthier, content and economically successful community.

Create a source for community involvement and fresh food. Encouraging healthy living and providing access to fresh food when no stores are within walking distance might be challenging, but community programs can provide creative options while private development is in the works.

In Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston, the Madison Park Development Corporation focuses on increasing healthy food access to residents. Community gardens serve as not only a place for fresh fruits and vegetables to grow, but also as a gathering place to cook, exercise and encourage involvement in the neighborhood.

“We find out what events the participants would like to have in the garden, so therefore we know the turnout will be great,” says Leslie Stafford, a health and wellness coordinator at MPDC.

The gardening itself can create personal investment in the community. While garden plots are individually managed, families and groups can maintain one together, “so they can also have that social connectedness,” Stafford says. For example, groups of peer health leaders and resident service coordinators have plots and are all able to enjoy the fresh food they grow together.

Talk to someone who knows development. Attracting private investment can be tricky, so it’s important to bring in an individual or organization familiar with the development process and how to analyze an area and use its strong points to attract businesses.

“At the end of the day, you have to understand how that grocery store operator is going to make money, because that’s why they’re coming,” Krehmeyer says. “They’re not coming to eliminate the food desert – that’s a good byproduct, but they need to make money.”

Continue community programs. The work isn’t done once a supermarket opens in a low-income neighborhood that didn’t previously have one. It’s imperative to sustain ongoing engagement with the investors in the neighborhood and the residents to make sure both see all the benefits.

Beyond Housing and Madison Park Development Corporation both offer supermarket tours for residents, providing advice for shopping right, making healthy choices and even cooking tips.

Don’t stop at the grocery store. That access to consistent fresh food is necessary, but it’s only one part of the puzzle in bringing economic development to a neighborhood. Commercial investment is key to attracting new homebuyers to the area, which increases demand and drives up home values – ideally with an increase in wealth among existing residents so they’re able to afford items at shops, entertainment and business services brought to the area.

Since the Save-A-Lot opened in Pagedale, Beyond Housing has helped bring the community’s first bank branch to the area, as well as a small movie theater with low ticket prices to ensure all residents are able to enjoy the neighborhood amenity.

“It’s one of these ironic things that happens: We’re in a food desert, so you put [in] a grocery store with healthy food at good prices, and lo and behold people actually buy groceries,” Krehmeyer says. “And then you open up a bank that, again, is cognizant of a suite of products that makes sense for this population the bank is located in, and lo and behold they do well.”

This article by Devon Thorsby appeared on the U.S. News & World Report website on May 26th.