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?