Academic journal article Cityscape

Rethinking Food Deserts Using Mixed-Methods GIS

Academic journal article Cityscape

Rethinking Food Deserts Using Mixed-Methods GIS

Article excerpt


Food deserts-low-income neighborhoods with poor access to affordable, healthy food- have increasingly been seen as a driver of obesity and related health conditions in urban neighborhoods. Most current research uses an approach based on a Geographic Information System, or GIS, to identify food deserts using store locations, but data that link food environments to health outcomes have been inconsistent. This article outlines an alternative methodology that shifts from the proximity of healthy food stores to the food-provisioning practices of neighborhood residents. Using a mixed-methods approach, this research relies on several data sources: (1) geographic tracking on daily mobility created using Global Positioning System, or GPS, software on a smartphone, (2) georeferenced photographs also created using smartphones, (3) food-shopping diaries and store receipts, and (4) semistructured qualitative interviews. The resulting analysis identified how factors ranging from perceived neighborhood disorder to available transit options shape decisions about how and where to get food. By more explicitly focusing on the food-provisioning stratèges of low-income households and the factors that shape them, this research suggests potential pathways toward healthier, more livable cities.


British researchers first popularized the term food desert in the mid-1990s (Cummins and Macintyre, 1999; Wrigley, 2002). Since that time, it has become an increasingly common way to refer to neighborhoods where nutritious foods-most often defined as fresh produce and meats- are unavailable, of poor quality or overly expensive. In the United States, several policy initiatives have been based on this research. Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which began in 2004, was one major response to this research, providing grants and loans to improve food-related infrastructure in areas with low food access (Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, 2014). Many of these funds were used to expand or create new supermarkets. President Barack Obama expanded this model at the federal level by creating the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HHS, 2010). Along with the creation of these federal and state programs, several U.S. cities have created initiatives to improve food access in low-income neighborhoods, including the creation of a food policy task force by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (Boston Mayor's Office, 2012).

Current research on food deserts primarily makes use of an approach based on Geographic Information Systems (GlS)-based analysis that relies on the proximity of supermarkets to residential areas (Black, Moon, and Baird, 2014; Caspi et al., 2012). This methodology is conceptually clear and relatively easy to implement. It requires census data and a listing of major food retailers, both widely available, in addition to data on health outcomes such as body mass index, or BMI, or reported food consumption. Recent research shows little or no association between food deserts and these health outcomes, however, which puts into question the efficacy of this spatial analytical approach (Cummins, Flint, and Matthews, 2014; Lee, 2012).

This article describes an alternative methodology, one that moves from measures of food proximity to the food-provisioning practices of urban residents. This mixed-methods study combines Global Positioning System (GPS) data on daily mobility, food-shopping diaries, georeferenced photos, and semistructured qualitative interviews. It identifies the role of other major factors affecting food access, including perceived neighborhood disorder and store quality, the role of social networks, and the effect of available transit options. In contrast to approaches that privilege only objective analysis of geospatial data, this method is also more explicitly participator)', including the voices and perspectives of urban residents. It thus provides a useful lens on the daily food provisioning of urban households and the factors that shape them. …

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