Marie-Antoinette is famously believed to have said “Let them eat cake” when she was told that her French subjects had no bread to eat. For some Americans, finding either bread or cake can be a struggle when no food stores are close by. Being in such a scenario is often referred to as a “food desert.”
The USDA Economic Research Service has recently published a paper called Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. The report is not necessarily an indictment of the way things are now and a call to action – which may disappoint some – but it does provide some parameters of the issue. From the report:
Access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households. Results indicate that some consumers are constrained in their ability to access affordable nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. Three pieces of evidence corroborate this conclusion: Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live • more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.
Supermarkets and large grocery stores have lower prices than smaller stores. A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all the foods needed for a healthy diet and that may offer these foods and other food at higher prices. This report examines whether prices of similar foods vary across retail outlet types and whether the prices actually paid by consumers vary across income levels. These analyses use proprietary household-level data that contain information on food items purchased by approximately 40,000 demographically representative households across the United States. Results from these analyses show that when consumers shop at convenience stores, prices paid for similar goods are, on average, higher than at supermarkets.
Low-income households shop where food prices are lower, when they can. Findings also show that food purchases at convenience stores make up a small portion of total food expenditures (2 to 3 percent) for low-income consumers. Low- and middle-income households are more likely to purchase food at supercenters, where prices are lower. Administrative data on SNAP benefit redemptions from 2008 show that 86 percent of SNAP benefits were redeemed at supermarkets or large grocery stores.