Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 537–547 | Cite as

Redefining the food desert: combining GIS with direct observation to measure food access

  • Mark S. LeClair
  • Anna-Maria Aksan


As public and private resources are increasingly being directed towards the elimination of food deserts in urban areas, proper measurement of food access is essential. Amelioration has been approached through the use of farmers markets, virtual grocery stores, and corner store programs, but properly situating these assets in neighborhoods in need requires localized data on both the location and content of food outlets and the populations served. This paper examines the reliability of current techniques for identifying food deserts, and identifies some of the flaws in those approaches. Information derived from geographic information systems (GIS) mapping is the predominant means of determining food availability. In this study, food access in Bridgeport, CT, is examined utilizing both computer-based GIS mapping and on-the-ground observations. While the GIS output indicates generalized food accessibility issues, supplementation by survey data reduces the geographic extent of the food desert problem. Still, nearly 60,000 people (40 % of the population) reside in neighborhoods served only by small retailers who provide few healthy food options, and those at inflated prices. The high opportunity cost of travelling by bus to a major grocery store may outweigh the direct cost savings, and residents choose to consume locally available but unhealthy foods.


Food deserts Food access GIS mapping Price–distance cost 



Geographic information systems


Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program



The authors would like to thank the following students who contributed to the initial research for this project as part of a service-learning class at Fairfield University: Andrew Benzenberg, Robert Bossone, Stephen Boundy, Salvatore Ciola, Anthony Caso, Craig Colpitts, Michael Davin, Jay Fischer, James Fusco, Curtis Garofalo, James Griffin, William Hollingsworth, John Kremidas, Sean Leach, Kenneth Muir, Brendan O’Brien, Morgan Peck, Marco Raffaelli, Cameron Shirley, John Sullivan and Allison Wigand.


  1. Andreyeva, T., D.M. Blumenthal, M.B. Schwartz, M.W. Long, and K.D. Brownell. 2008. Availability and prices of foods across stores and neighborhoods: The case of New Haven, Connecticut. Health Affairs 27(5): 1381–1388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Apparicio, P., M. Cloutier, and R. Shearmur. 2007. The case of Montreal’s missing food deserts: Evaluation of accessibility to food supermarkets. International Journal of Health Geographics 6: Article 4. Accessed 5 April 2013.
  3. Block, J.P., R.A. Scribner, and K.B. DeSalvo. 2004. Fast food, race/ethnicity, and income: A geographic analysis. American Journal of Preventative Medicine 27(3): 211–217.Google Scholar
  4. Bowyer, S., M. Caraher, K. Eilbert, and R. Carr-Hill. 2009. Shopping for food: Lessons from a London borough. British Food Journal 111(5): 452–474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burns, C., M. Jackson, C. Gibbons, and R.M. Stoney. 2002. Foods prepared outside the home: Association with selected nutrients and body mass index in adult Australians. Public Health Nutrition 5(3): 441–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Caraher, M., S. Lloyd, J. Lawton, G. Singh, K. Horsley, and F. Mussa. 2010. A tale of two cities: A study of access to food, lessons for public health practice. Health Education Journal 69(2): 200–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caspi, C.E., I. Kawachi, S.V. Subramanian, G. Adamkiewicz, and G. Sorensen. 2012. The relationship between diet and perceived and objective access to supermarkets among low-income residents. Social Science and Medicine 75(7): 1254–1262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Charreire, H., R. Casey, P. Salze, C. Simon, B. Chaix, A. Banos, D. Badariotti, C. Weber, and J. Oppert. 2010. Measuring the food environment using geographical information systems: A methodological review. Public Health Nutrition 13(11): 1773–1785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chen, S.E., R.J.G.M. Florax, and S.D. Snyder. 2009. Obesity, fast food, and grocery stores: Evidence from geo-referenced micro data. Ann Arbor, MI: National Poverty Center, University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  10. Cowlitz on the Move. 2010. Community food assessment of Cowlitz County, Washington. Accessed 5 April 2013.
  11. Crandall, C.S. 1991. Do heavy-weight students have more difficulty paying for college? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17: 606–611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crandall, C.S. 1995. Do parents discriminate against their heavy-weight daughters? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21: 724–735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cummins, S., and S. Macintyre. 2002. “Food deserts”—Evidence and assumption in health policy making. British Medical Journal 325: 436–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cummins, S., A. Findlay, M. Petticrew, and L. Sparks. 2005. Healthy cities: The impact of food retail-led regeneration on food access, choice and retail structure. Built Environment 31(4): 288–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Datar, A., and R. Sturm. 2006. Childhood overweight and elementary school outcomes. International Journal of Obesity 30: 1449–1460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fowler-Brown, A.G., L.H. Ngo, R.S. Phillips, and C.C. Wee. 2010. Adolescent obesity and future college degree attainment. Obesity 18(6): 1235–1241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hammond, R.A., and R. Levine. 2010. The economic impact of obesity in the United States. Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy 3: 285–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hendrickson, D., C. Smith, and N. Eikenberry. 2006. Fruit and vegetable access in four low-income food desert communities in Minnesota. Agriculture and Human Values 23(3): 371–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hubley, T.A. 2011. Assessing the proximity of healthy food options and food deserts in a rural area in Maine. Applied Geography 31(4): 1224–1231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Larsen, K., and J. Gilliland. 2008. Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961–2005. International Journal of Health Geographics 7: Article 16. Accessed 5 April 2013.
  21. Larsen, N.I., M.T. Story, and M.C. Nelson. 2009. Neighborhood environments: Disparities in access to healthy foods in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 36(1): 74–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lewis, L.B., L. Galloway-Gilliam, G. Flynn, J. Nomachi, L.C. Keener, and D.C. Sloane. 2011. Transforming the urban food desert from the grassroots up: A model for community change. Family & Community Health 34: S92–S101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lloyd, S., J. Lawton, M. Caraher, G. Singh, K. Horsley, and F. Mussa. 2011. A tale of two localities: Healthy eating on a restricted income. Health Education Journal 70(1): 48–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Maddock, J. 2004. The relationship between obesity and the prevalence of fast-food restaurants: State-level analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion 19(2): 137–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McLaren, L. 2007. Socioeconomic status and obesity. Epidemiologic Reviews 29(1): 29–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Morland, K., A.D. Roux, and S. Wing. 2006. Supermarkets, other food stores, and obesity: The Atherosclerosis risk in communities study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 30(4): 333–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Morland, K., S. Wing, A.D. Roux, and C. Poole. 2002. Neighborhood characteristics associated with the location of food stores and food service places. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 22(1): 23–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Morton, L.W., E.A. Bitto, M.J. Oakland, and M. Sand. 2005. Solving the problem of Iowa food deserts: Food insecurity and civic structure. Rural Sociology 70(1): 94–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Morton, L.W. 2009. Rural food deserts: Low-income perspectives on food access in Minnesota and Iowa. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 41(3): 176–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mo-suwan, L., L. Lebel, A. Puetpaiboon, and C. Junjana. 1999. School performance and weight status of children and young adolescents in a transitional society in Thailand. International Journal of Obesity 23: 272–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ogden, C., and M. Carroll. 2010. Prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents: United States, trends 1963–1965 through 2007–2008. National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 3 Mar 2013.
  32. Páez, A., R.G. Mercado, S. Farber, C. Morency, and M. Roorda. 2010. Relative accessibility deprivation indicators for urban settings: Definitions and application to food deserts in Montreal. Urban Studies 47(7): 1415–1438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Prentice, A.M., and S.A. Jebb. 2003. Fast foods, energy density and obesity: A possible mechanistic link. Obesity Reviews 4(4): 187–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Raja, S., C. Ma, and P. Yadav. 2008. Beyond food deserts: Measuring and mapping racial disparities in neighborhood food environments. Journal of Planning Education and Research 27(4): 469–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Reisig, V.M.T., and A. Hobbiss. 2000. Food deserts and how to tackle them: A study of one city’s approach. Health Education Journal 59(2): 137–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rose, D., and R. Richards. 2004. Food store access and house-hold fruit and vegetable use among participants in the US Food Stamp Program. Public Health Nutrition 7(8): 1081–1088.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rose, D., J.N. Bodor, P.L. Hutchinson, and C.M. Swalm. 2010. The importance of a multi-dimensional approach for studying the links between food access and consumption. Journal of Nutrition 140(6): 1170–1174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Russell, S.E., and C.P. Heidkamp. 2011. ‘Food desertification’: The loss of a major supermarket in New Haven. Connecticut. Applied Geography 31(4): 1197–1209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Shore, S.M., M.L. Sachs, J.R. Lidicker, S.N. Brett, A.R. Wright, and J.R. Libonati. 2008. Decreased scholastic achievement in overweight middle school students. Obesity 16(7): 1535–1538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sturm, R., and A. Datar. 2005. Body mass index in elementary school children, metropolitan area food prices and food outlet density. Public Health 119(12): 1059–1068.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Taras, H., and W. Potts-Datema. 2005. Obesity and student performance at school. Journal of School Health 75(8): 291–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. U.S. Census Bureau. 2013. State and County QuickFacts: Bridgeport, Connecticut. Accessed 23 Jan 2013.
  43. Van Duyn, M.A.S., and E. Pivonka. 2000. Overview of the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption for the dietetics professional: Selected literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 100(12): 1511–1521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Walker, R.E., C.R. Keane, and J.G. Burke. 2010. Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & Place 16(5): 876–884.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wang, Y., and Q. Zhang. 2006. Are American children and adolescents of low socioeconomic status at increased risk of obesity? Changes in the association between overweight and family income between 1971 and 2002. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 84(4): 707–716.Google Scholar
  46. Whelan, A., N. Wrigley, D. Warm, and E. Cannings. 2002. Life in a ‘food desert’. Urban Studies 39(11): 2083–2100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wrigley, N. 2002. ‘Food deserts’ in British cities: Policy context and research priorities. Urban Studies 39(11): 2029–2040.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Wrigley, N.D.Warm, and B. Margetts. 2003. Deprivation, diet, and food-retail access: Findings from the Leeds ‘food desert’ study. Environment and Planning 35(1): 151–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wrigley, N., D. Warm, B. Margetts, and A. Whelan. 2002. Assessing the impact of improved retail access on diet in a ‘food desert’: A preliminary report. Urban Studies 39(11): 2061–2082.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsFairfield UniversityFairfieldUSA

Personalised recommendations