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There’s no doubt that food deserts – areas with limited access to affordable, nutritious fare – are a major problem in even the wealthiest of countries. According to 2009 data from the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 23.5 million Americans reside in low-income neighborhoods more than one mile from a large grocery store. More recently, studies in the United Kingdom found that 1.2 million people live in food deserts, increasing their risk of diet-based health issues such as obesity.
Building more supermarkets may be an obvious fix but it’s far from the only one; furthermore, it might not even be the most effective one. A person’s distance to a grocery store is just one way in which they can be disadvantaged, and a large part of the problem – and solution – is centered around urban mobility.
The widening footprint of our cities is a significant contributing factor. A 2019 University of Texas study found that the availability of healthy food hasn’t kept pace with urban sprawl, and that areas with low residential densities – which tend to be situated outside of city centers – have an increased likelihood of being a food desert.
But while countless maps over the years have illustrated the neighborhoods most lacking in healthy foods close by, they fail to acknowledge that proximity doesn’t always correlate with accessibility.
Looking deeper into the aforementioned stat from the USDA, the people most affected by food deserts are the 2.3 million households located far from a supermarket and with no access to a vehicle. In other words, being distant from a grocery doesn’t have to be a problem as long as we have other ways of connecting people with its products.
This lack of mobility and nutritious food options is obviously an undesirable situation, and one that most harshly affects low income earners. We already know that neighbourhoods with limited or no access to public transport are linked to households with low median incomes and high rates of unemployment. Unhealthy food can further worsen the quality of life for residents, adding to their disadvantage.
There are plenty of ways to make food sellers more accessible, including some novel ones. For example, a 2017 collaboration between startup Wheelys and the Hefei University of Technology saw the creation of the mobile grocery store that could be driven to under served locations (and potentially do so autonomously using driverless technologies).
But while a supermarket-on-wheels might still be far from reality, improving public transport provides a reliable alternative, allowing consumers to easily and cheaply pick up fresh food from afar even if they don’t own or can’t afford a vehicle. Trains and buses can also be adapted to be more suitable for carrying groceries, such as with chilled storage compartments.
Robust public transport, however, may not do much to help those with mobility issues or who are simply time-poor. For these people, having nutritious food delivered to their door could be the most effective solution. There are already many services around the world that deliver groceries on demand, such as Amazon Go, but while they may be convenient for consumers, they pose a challenge for our roads.
A trail program in Washington D.C. delivers groceries so commuters can pick up on their way home. Image courtesy City Lab.
The shift from in-store shopping to e-commerce means that many people now order items they would have otherwise purchased in person, resulting in a greater reliance on freight. Experts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute said that, in 2017, 2.5 deliveries were made daily for every 10 Americans and predicted that this number will double by 2023 – a huge increase that will put added pressure on already-choked thoroughfares.
To alleviate this congestion before it strikes, urban planners will need to rethink how these goods are transported. By leveraging our historical and real-time data on how vehicles move throughout our cities, we can allow road infrastructure to facilitate efficient movement, ensuring food deliveries meet consumer needs (and, of course, are still fresh upon arrival).
These are just a few ways that the impacts of food deserts can be reduced, and ever-innovating technologies will certainly open up new opportunities. What’s certain is that no matter the approach, mobility is part of the solution.