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Thursday March 22, 2018

Does Nebraska have a food deserts problem? One legislator wants to find out

Two related legislative actions this session attemped to get their hands around the issue of "food deserts" in Nebraska, those areas the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed are under-served by retail outlets capable of providing healthy, affordable food, leaving residents there at higher risk of obesity and other diet-related health problems. Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen's LB 945 would have directed $150,000 annually for the next two years toward economic-development grants aimed not only grocery stores, but also farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community gardens. LB 945 stalled in committee, based on the objections of, among others, NGIA Executive Secretary Kathy Siefken, who argued the bill could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve. Funding food cooperatives or farmers’ markets that compete with small rural grocery stores operating on already thin margins, she said, could drive even more retail outlets out of business.

Hansen followed up with another resolution, minus the pricetage, calling for the legislature's ag committee to study the issue and report back to the legislature along with recommendations. The study would look at existing scientific literature and consult with experts to identify factors that limit access to healthy, affordable food, look for  public and private initiatives that can stimulate private investment in grocery and "other food-sourcing enterprises," inventory public and private money to combat the problem, and examine the role of public and private stakeholders in the issue.

The idea of food deserts, as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, has an intuitive attraction, according to University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement and was reflected in Hansen's comments in support of the initial funding bill. USDA says millions of Americans now live within one of these low-income pockets of limited food access, and Hansen claims 325,000 Nebraskans live in such food deserts, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities.

But how certain are those numbers?

An extensive review of the literature in the May 2015 issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy attempts a more exhaustive examination of the reasons why nobody has yet successfully established a meaningful definition of food deserts nor even how to measure one. Even the definition of what it means to lack access to healthy food remains elusive. In the review, a team of economists from USDA argue too much of the focus has been placed on the amount of distance between healthy food sources and low-income citizens, and too much attention has been paid to the resources consumers have to get to stores and buy once there. Their list of what's wrong with measuring food deserts includes these holes:

1. Too much emphasis on geography and not enough on individuals

Focusing only on low-income areas and neighborhoods implies that everyone in the same area has the same access to healthy food, which isn't necessarily true. And because results can be easily changed by the way the geographic data is sliced, it's often too easy to juggle the numbers to correlate with the outcome you want, the researchers say. Although some individual-level measures of food access like Gallup Polls have been tried and "are a step in the right direction," the need for more individualized data about food access is still lacking.

2. Over-emphasis on low-income areas

Although the intentions may be good in targeting public dollars to areas that may have high concentrations of individuals who face food access barriers, the poverty level of a neighborhood doesn't always accurately predict supermarket proximity. In fact, the review authors note, because higher-income areas are typically less population-dense than low-income ones, poorer residents within those higher-income blocks could be more likely to be too far from a healthy food retail outlet. Using some of the current estimates, in fact, of the estimated 2.3 million households that are located more than one mile from a supermarket and do not have a vehicle to get there, 1.4 million live in moderate- and higher-income areas, while only 900,000 are in low-income areas

3. It all may be relative

One of the most important holes in the research that leads to criticism of food-desert definitions is the uncertainty whether relatively poorer access to healthy food sources really translates into inadequate access. For example, one relative measure of poor food access compares the relative square footage of grocery retail space per person in a neighborhood against with the average square footage of grocery retail space per person for a whole city. In order to justify such a relative measure of access as meaingful, you have to assume that having relatively unequal access to healthy food means anything in terms of absolute deprivation of access to healthy foods. We really don't know whether those two follow, the researchers argue.

4. Definitions may be painted with an overly broad brush

Over-generalized and sweeping definitions of poor food access by geography brush aside vast differences across the country in factors we know affect food access: factors like population density, vehicle availability, natural and man-made barriers to access and availability of roads, sidewalks and public transportation, to name only a few. For example, under USDA's original definition of food desert, people in rural areas must be 10 miles from a store before they are considered low-access, while in urban areas the distance is only 1 mile. Rural populations as a whole may have greater access to vehicles, but USDA's  measure does not consider vehicle availability. Obviously, any household in a rural area without a vehicle and located more than one mile from a store would likely have just as much trouble accessing food as their urban counterpart, yet they would not be considered in a food desert by that definition.

5. Store square footage may be meaningless

One of the common food-desert measurements, square footage of grocery per capita in an area--typically less than 3 square feet of grocery retail per person--may be one of the most meaningless. It assumes availability of healthy food falls when square footage falls, which is not a safe assumption, they argue. What if store space grows for a region, for example, but more space is  devoted to non-grocery goods or larger-sized products? In fact, according to one study they cite, that 3-square-feet food-desert threshold would mean the entire city of New York qualifies as food desert.

6. Need doesn't equal store viability, and vice-versa

Methods of measuring food deserts that compare estimated demand within an area against actual grocery sales are likely to underestimate the real need in some areas even while overestimating the need in others.

7. “Adequate” and “inadequate” are judgement calls

To be useful in making policy decisions, food-desert distinctions have to eventually be turned into actionable numbers, they note. Yet how the meaningful numbers are distinguished from the trivial ones are "not always obvious." Distinctions like distance from a store and vehicle availability "may be reaonsable from an empirical standpoint," they write, "may have precedent in literature, and may be conceptually straightforward; but they are, ultimately, judgments."

8. General holes in assumptions

Attempts to gauge the level and importance of food deserts are hampered by general limitations like availability of accurated lists of stores in an area, vast differences in food offerings across stores, presence of non-traditional outlets like dollar stores and pharmacies, and the reality that low-income shoppers in low-access areas may be just like all other consumers--they may shop where food is cheapest and not where the analysis says they should. All those factors confound attempts to easily define a food desert and its meaning.

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