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You only have to drive through the Gainsboro and Lincoln Terrace neighborhoods of Northwest Roanoke, or through Southeast along the Jamison Avenue corridor, to know they are places devoid of supermarkets.
A couple of months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released data that confirmed what residents of those neighborhoods have long known. They live in what researchers have come to call “food deserts” – areas with concentrations of low income families, in many cases with no personal transportation, and no nearby supermarket. Food deserts aren’t exclusively urban, but frequently are.
And those who live in them, researchers confirm, suffer from high rates of diet-related disease – obesity and type 2 diabetes, for example — because of the ways they must shop.
The USDA identified nearly 200 census tracts in Virginia as food deserts. Just 29 of those are found to have 100 percent of residents with low access to a supermarket. And four of those 29 are in Roanoke, including the Gainsboro/Lincoln Terrace and Southeast.
Moreover, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of the data, the city of Roanoke is second only to Petersburg among Virginia’s urban areas
According to it’s documentation, the USDA first identified census tracts that it labeled low-income. Then, researchers determined what portion of the total population of each of those tracts lived more than a mile from a full-service supermarket in urban areas, and more than 10 miles in rural areas.
Some have questioned the USDA’s methodology, including Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher who first popularized the term “food desert” in 2006. In our story in The Roanoke Times, Gallagher points out that there is no perfect distance to a grocery store. You could live a quarter mile from a store, but if you have to cross a freeway on foot to get there, for many it may as well be 10 miles away.
Her sense is that the USDA data may underestimate the problem.
At a minimum, it does seem to confirm what is plain to the eye. Grocery chains long ago began pulling out of the urban core in favor of places that accommodate their new model: megastores surrounded by seas of asphalt along main arterial roads with easy access.
What’s left behind is a hodge-podge of neighborhood food sources that charge higher prices, from fast food to old-fashioned corner groceries to convenience stores to chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
That sets up a dynamic for those who live in food deserts, which I described in an interview on pubic radio WVTF/RadioIQ: If you have to pay extra for bus fare and cab fare to grocery shop, your incentive is to shop less frequently, maybe even once a month. If you shop once a month, your incentive is to by stuff that is filling and will keep, often high-preservative stuff in cans or dehydrated noodles. You have little incentive to buy stuff like fresh produce and dairy products that won’t last in a month’s quantity. The result is a diet which, paradoxically, produces obesity in people who have less to eat.
That’s the same stuff that’s hard to find in those neighborhood stores.
So, what’s the solution? Getting mad at chain grocery stores? Asking them to open stores in places that don’t make sense for them business-wise, when they already operate on thin profit margins?
Some cities are trying to convince those neighborhood stores to sell healthier choices, like fresh produce. What about community gardens and community farmers’ markets?
Are there transportation solutions? In Roanoke, there is bus service to supermarkets from its most challenged neighborhoods. But you can’t bring two weeks worth of groceries on a bus. Is there another option?
There are independent grocers who open stores in food deserts, and chains like Save-a-lot that specialize in smaller stores in impoverished areas. Some say they are proving that small stores on and old-fashioned scale can still be profitable in the inner city.
Does government have a role? What is it? Incentives and zoning to promote development of stores in needy areas? What else?
What do you think the solution is?
The New York Times does a lot of things well, and they really excel at creative and thorough interactive graphics for the Web. And scale is no issue for them. That’s why they can do things like produce an interactive map of the entire United States showing demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
On this map, you can zoom out to see almost the entire nation at once, or zoom in to see just a handful of census tracts at a time. Scroll over and see pop-ups with data for each individual tract. It’s an impressive piece of work.
There’s a significant caveat with it, though. The data displayed is from the American Community Survey, not the actual decennial census. So, the data are estimates, not actual counts. That means there’s a margin of error, which gets greater and greater as the slice of geography you’re looking at becomes smaller and smaller. So, for a locality the size of Roanoke or Montgomery County, the numbers are probably pretty solid. But by the time you drill down to an individual census tract, the numbers amount to an educated guess.
The survey data has since been superseded by data from the 2010 Census.
Just something to bear in mind as you play with this otherwise really cool tool.
In the latest installment of our coverage of census data, all but four localities in the Roanoke and New River Valley regions have had surges in their elderly population over the past decade, reflecting the region’s already above-average concentration of elderly, and the impact of the first wave of the aging baby boomers.
For those of a data-inclined bent, veteran Roanoke Times journalists Beth Macy and Matt Chittum also recommend links to reports and numbers reflecting a national perspective, a closer look in Virginia, and an advocacy group’s report.
The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center has done some crunching on the census data and come out with a report on Virginia’s Hispanic population.
Here’s a summary:
Hispanics are the fastest-growing and second-largest minority group in Virginia, according to a new report released today by demographers at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
The report, “Hispanics in Virginia,” presents analysis of the latest 2010 Census and 2009 American Community Survey data and includes these findings:
o The Hispanic population in Virginia almost doubled in the past 10 years.
o More than half of Virginia’s Hispanics were born in the United States; most are under age 18.
o Hispanics have a high labor force participation rate.
“One in every three new Virginia residents in the last 10 years was Hispanic, ”
Qian Cai, director of the Cooper Center’s Demographics & Workforce Group, said.
The report explores demographic characteristics; citizenship and immigration; family and personal life; education and language; employment and economic well-being; and geographic location. While Hispanics are found in all localities in Virginia, they, like the population overall, are concentrated in Virginia’s major metropolitan areas. The report also found that Hispanic households are more likely than non-Hispanic households to contain young children and two or more families.
The study includes comparisons between foreign-born and U.S.-born Hispanics. “On almost all dimensions, place of birth is an essential factor in understanding the characteristics of Virginia’s Hispanics,” said demographer Susan Clapp, author of the report. “Native-born Hispanics more closely resemble non-Hispanics than their foreign-born counterparts.”
You can find the entire report — which is loaded with nifty charts and graphs — here.
The Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia continues to pore over the first wave of census data. There’s not a lot of age data in this round — the age cohorts will come later. But the first release does break out how many people are age 18 and under, and the center has produced a report looking at where that young population in Virginia is.
The answer: Mostly in Northern Virginia.
The top 5 localities with the largest percentage of the population under age 18 are all in Northern Virginia. In fact, the top seven are.
Among the localities with the lowest percentage of under 18 population:
Williamsburg has the lowest at 10 percent, but Lexington is just behind at 10.1 percent. Radford is third at 13.1 percent. Charlottesville and Highland County are tied for fourth and fifth. Note that all those except Highland County are college towns, so that might help skew the numbers since those localities would presumably have a big share of people in the 18-early 20s bracket.
Still, when you look at the map, you’ll see that Southwest Virginia comes out older and Northern Virginia comes out a lot younger.
More Virginians are identifying themselves as multi-racial, according to the U.S. Census.
2000 was the first time the census allowed people to check off multiple backgrounds for race. Then, 2 percent of Virginians identified themselves as multi-racial. In 2010, the figure was up to 2.9%.
However, the figure is larger in some localities, especially in Northern Virginia. The locality with the highest multi-racial population is Manassas Park, where 5.4 percent of the population described themselves that way.
The Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia has a overview of the multi-racial population here.