End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Food Insecurity 

There is no standardized, unilateral measure of food insecurity, limiting the availability of data on real-time food insecurity rates. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers one option, obtaining its figures through a set of 18 questions administered in an annual national food insecurity survey. However, this method and others like it frequently fall short of adequately capturing the nature of both point-in-time and trends in food scarcity.  

Traditional metrics rely on economic factors, such as unemployment and poverty rates, to assess food insecurity. Though low-income households* are at a much higher risk of facing food insecurity, income levels alone are not a perfect measure. Nearly 50% of families above the poverty line still experience food insecurity and 33% of food insecure households have incomes at or above 185% of the poverty line. In fact, food insecurity is more closely related to income shocks, whether positive or negative, due to the associated stress, instability, and difficulties in adjustment. Short-term food insecurity is an ever-present risk, and families often cycle in and out of vulnerable situations in the span of months. However, this trend is difficult to capture in real-time food insecurity statistics since surveys are conducted on an annual basis.

The USDA survey is entirely focused on food sufficiency, which evaluates the quantity of food available. Food availability, such as residential proximity to grocery stores, does not necessarily correlate with food security—meaning that a greater density of grocery stores will not inhibit food insecurity within a region. This is discussed in depth in a later section. Moreover, food quality is a crucial, oft-ignored dimension to food insecurity. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as balance and diversity in meals is a key determinant of nutrition and long-term health. Current metrics do not assess the physiological effects associated with food insecurity, such as malnutrition, disease, and weakness, which could provide valuable context on the severity of hunger.

Government departments and aid organizations rely on outdated and often inaccurate data, which may misrepresent the needs of the population they are serving at a given time. The COVID-19 pandemic presented such a challenge, with DC’s Capital Area Food Bank anticipating between 200,000 and 250,000 newly food insecure residents in the District alone due to the economic shocks. Despite these projections, official statistics on new and chronic food insecure households has been unavailable throughout the pandemic. This lack of data is detrimental—it can inhibit a direct service provider’s ability to acquire appropriate aid and support, it can distort policymakers’ perceptions on priority issue areas, and it can prevent advocacy organizations from adapting to changes in need accordingly. As a result, these data gaps deprive key stakeholders of valuable information on communities of interest or potential demographic shifts which would otherwise inform real-time policymaking and aid intervention. 

* In DC, low-income refers to a household income equal to or less than 80% of the area median income. Moderate-income means a total income equal to between 50% and 80% of the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area median. In Virginia, low-income also refers to a household income less than or equal to 80% of the median income in an area as reported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development or 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. In Maryland, the definition of low-income varies by agency. To qualify for the Maryland Department of Human Resources’ Food Supplement Program, a household must have gross earnings below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $1,127 for a one-person household or $2,297 for a four-member household.

Food Deserts 

The “food desert” metaphor has been used since the 1990s to describe a lack of spatial access to food retailers, mainly supermarkets, as a driver of health issues such as diabetes and obesity in low-income communities. While specific measurements vary, food desert indicators typically include distance to food retailers, number of food retailers, income, vehicle availability, and public transportation. Mapping these variables through software like GIS allows researchers and practitioners to identify locations of food deserts and visualize spatial inequalities in access to food. The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas is among the most prominent food desert maps, formerly known as the Food Desert Locator. 

In the US, a lack of spatial access to conventional food retailers in low-income communities derives from a century’s worth of policies: segregation, bank redlining, highway construction, and discretionary zoning regulations. This ultimately resulted in a higher concentration of grocery stores in suburban areas, mirroring the “white flight” of the 1970s. In the early 2000s, policymakers, advocates, and academics began to pay increasing attention to obesity as it emerged in the national consciousness as a public health issue, positioning unhealthy food environments as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Thus, health disparities in low-income and predominantly-minority areas could be framed as a market failure and solved through policy initiatives to publicly finance the development of supermarkets in “food deserts,” a strategy referred to broadly as the retail initiative. 

That said, the term “food desert” has been met with multiple critiques by academics and advocates. Notably, numerous studies do not find a significant link between healthy food availability and healthy food consumption. Additionally, activists and scholars view the retail initiative as a way for supermarket chains to capitalize on the issue and imply the need for top-down solutions from actors outside the community. While painting these communities as desolate places, the food desert metaphor neglects to acknowledge various available community food resources that may not resemble traditional middle-class foodscapes, such as food pantries or mutual aid organizations. A 2015 USDA study determined that the majority of people in each of the four study categories (all household, SNAP users, SNAP-eligible non-users, and non-SNAP eligible non-users) preferred to shop at a location farther than the closest grocery store to their home. Another USDA study found that “trip chaining,” or combining multiple errands into one trip, was also common among low-income residents in low access areas, with residents reporting that they shopped closer to their workplace than their home. This idea of “trip-chaining” is not often included in food desert analyses. Furthermore, even when the traditional middle-class foodscape is present through the existence of supermarkets in close proximity, the prices may be above the means of low-income households, exemplifying the nuance required in understanding food access and justice. 

GIS maps of food deserts have similarly received criticism from activists and scholars for oversimplifying the issue of food access to a few select variables representative of middle-class foodscapes and neglecting to visualize other community resources. Actors outside of the community then utilize these maps to intervene and implement solutions that reinforce their notion of what the foodscape should look like. So while food desert maps in the traditional sense allow us to begin to conceptualize and visualize spatial food injustice, alternatives to mainstream mapping such as community asset mapping and participatory GIS empower communities to reclaim the mapping process to visualize and create their foodscape. While this alternative approach is strongly recommended, the prevailing policy intervention to address food insecurity remains linked to reducing average proximity to grocery stores. As such, it is essential to enforce that the link between proximity to grocery stores and food insecurity is entirely superficial.

Proximity versus Stability

When evaluating the relationship between grocery store proximity and food insecurity, there are three primary categories of food environments: food deserts, food swamps, and food mirages. In a food desert, residents live more than one mile from a supermarket in an urban area or 10 miles in a rural area. As a result, residents are more likely to rely on corner stores, mini-marts, or gas stations for food, which often carry higher-priced, less nutritious food options. A food swamp is defined as an area that provides an adequate amount of food options but has a significantly higher number of options that are not considered healthy, such as fast food or corner stores. Finally, a food mirage refers to an area with a high amount of healthy food options due to proximity to stores, but prices are higher than the average resident can afford. As a result, residents must travel to find affordable food options. Traditionally, food deserts have been the primary environment associated with food insecurity, as low-income areas generally have fewer supermarkets. However, systemic inequalities for people of color resulting in unstable infrastructure, income, and housing options are also factors that influence food insecurity, making proximity alone an insufficient explanation for high food insecurity rates.

Food Insecurity and Grocery Density Bivariate Map:

Food Insecurity and Grocery Location Point Style Map:

Figures 1 and 2 (above) depict the locations of food outlets across Maryland as well as the rate of food insecurity by county. Food outlet distribution data was not available for DC or Virginia, and as such neither are available for proximity analysis. The maps above visually affirm a lack of correlation between the presence of grocery stores and food security. The County Health Rankings defines food insecurity as the estimate percentage of the population that did not have access to a reliable source of food during the past year. A two-stage fixed effects model sourcing information from the Community Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and American Community Survey is used to estimate food insecurity.

 Data Sources: Grocery Store Locations: Maryland Food Stores 2017-2018 Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Food Insecurity: 2020 County Health Rankings (Data from 2015 & 2017)

Maps include and use the locations of small grocery/corner stores and supermarkets, defined by Johns Hopkins as:

Small Grocery and CornerStores: Small format grocery stores that are typically independently owned and operated. They typically have annual food sales of less than $2 million and have limited to no food departments. Corner stores are often located on street corners and thus small, limited to one row house unit, with an emphasis on snacks over groceries, similar to convenience stores. Small groceries are often larger, two or more row house units, and emphasize groceries over snacks.

Supermarkets: Large format grocery stores with all food departments present, including produce, meats, seafood, canned and packaged goods. Usually chain stores, they typically have annual food sales of $2 million or more and have three or more cash registers.

However, the relationship between grocery store distribution and food insecurity is still in evaluating food access in communities. According to the USDA, in 2010, 9.7% of the US population lived in low-income areas located more than 1 mile from a grocery store. In these areas, known as “low-income, low-access”, the USDA reported in a 2015 study that residents are disproportionately people of color and that residents in these areas are consuming less fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meat products as a result of primarily shopping at mini-marts, corner stores, or gas stations rather than full-service grocery stores, which they have to travel further to access. 

In Washington, DC specifically, food deserts make accessing healthy food options difficult. In Wards 7 and 8, where over 90% of residents are Black, shoppers must travel outside of their communities for supermarket access. According to a study by DC Hunger Solutions, supermarkets in Wards 7 and 8 decreased between 2010 and 2016. Wards 1, 2, and 3—which have a white resident majority and the highest median incomes in the District—have a minimum of 5 supermarkets in each Ward, with over 9 in Ward 3. Wards 7 and 8 experience the highest rates of food insecurity, which might suggest that this insecurity is the product of the low availability of full-service grocery stores. 

A primary factor influencing food insecurity aside from proximity to grocery stores is financial insecurity. Even in an area with a high distribution of full-service grocery stores, financial instability can prevent a family from having access to enough food to support their families or being able to afford nutritious food. According to the Brookings Institute, while low-income families spend less on food than medium to high-income families do, they spend an average of 36% of their disposable income on food, a disproportionate percentage in comparison to higher income brackets. As a result, families often have to choose between food and other expenses such as medicine, housing, and education. 

As of a 2018 study in Baltimore, there are 525 small grocery and corner stores, 183 convenience stores, 47 supermarkets, and 6 public markets distributed throughout the city. However, many of these retailers have a Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI) score of 9.5 or lower, out of a potential 28.5 score, indicating that nutritious food is less likely to be available or widely accessible at these locations. Areas lower than 9.5 are deemed a healthy food priority area (essentially a food desert), meaning that even if there are grocery stores available, income prohibits residents from accessing nutritious foods, or the store itself has limited healthy options. As of 2018, 23.5% of all Baltimore residents and 31.5% of Black Baltimore residents live in a healthy food priority area. Within healthy food priority areas, median household incomes fall below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, over 30% of households have no vehicle available, and residents live at least a quarter-mile from the nearest supermarket (excluding local grocery stores or other community food access points). Food insecurity is heavily linked to financial insecurity, indicating that reducing average proximity to grocery stores, particularly in urban environments, will not unilaterally improve food access outcomes. 

Furthermore, the composition of local retail food environments is a key determinant of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The Food Abundance Index (FAI) developed by the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture assesses the impact of the geographic distribution of food outlets on nutrition outcomes. The FAI catalogues whether healthy food options are available within a ten-mile radius for rural residents or ten-minute walking distance for urban residents. About 20% of rural counties nationwide are classified as food deserts using this metric. For both urban and rural residents alike, the lack of adequate transportation to travel the required long distances inhibit access to healthy foods. Low-income neighborhoods have fewer food outlets overall and poorer quality food outlets compared to their counterparts with higher median income. Low-income residents are more likely to consume higher-calorie diets and fewer organic or fresh foods. A 2019 study of rural communities in Texas found that decreasing the driving distance to supermarkets substantially increased residents’ produce consumption, with just a one-mile reduction in distance leading to an 8.9% rise in consumption. This change is even more pronounced among Black residents. A multistate study found that fresh fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 32% for Black residents compared to 11% for white residents for each new grocery outlet in a census tract. 

That said, simply adding new grocery outlets is neither a long-term nor effective solution to malnutrition since it does not address spatial, cost, and cultural barriers to access. In the results of a 2014 study, there were no significant changes to fruit and vegetable intake after the introduction of a new supermarket in a Philadelphia food desert. This suggests the expansion of food outlets must be accompanied by structural reform to ensure that the benefits reach the residents themselves, rather than merely serving large retailers.