Could the Missing Ingredient in Food Access Maps Spur Creative Policy Solutions?

Access to healthy, affordable food is crucial for the health and well-being of children and their families. But what if the way we’re measuring access to grocery stores misses a factor that may indicate important policy solutions?

Supermarkets may stay in one place, but people do not. The daily activities of work, school, errands and appointments take most of us into other neighborhoods, which may have grocery stores where we can pick up the ingredients for tonight’s dinner or the kids’ lunch tomorrow. Because most people travel by public transportation or private car, determining access to healthy food isn’t as simple as measuring proximity to a grocery store, new research indicates.

Reimaging the Food Desert Map

The USDA identifies “food deserts” using distance to a grocery store, population and poverty—but not whether the community has public transportation options or most residents have a car. In Mayor Gray’s newly released Sustainability DC plan, a map shades areas of the city with limited supermarket access, and our own DC KIDS COUNT e-Databook examines grocery stores by neighborhood cluster, finding that a third of neighborhoods lack a grocery store. Yet each of these maps may only provide a rough picture of food access in our city, a new article in the journal Health and Place and resulting discussion on the Atlantic Cities website indicate, because public and private transportation allows us to shop outside of our own neighborhoods.

If we factored in transportation, what would a food access map of DC look like? Most likely, areas with a nearby metro stop, several bus routes and workers who commute to other places in the region would show slightly more access to grocery stores. For example, the neighborhoods of Capitol View, Marshall Heights, Benning Heights lack a supermarket but they do have a metro station and many buses serve the neighborhood. Other communities with fewer transportation options, such as the Kenilworth/Parkside neighborhood, might even show more severe problems in getting to healthy food.

Policy Solutions May Point to Transportation

While pondering supermarket access maps may be an interesting thought experiment, we’re more interested in considering what this discussion about transportation and food access means for public policy decisions. The new Sustainability DC plan sets out the goal of “universal access to secure, nutritious and affordable food supplies,” so that within 20 years, 75% of residents live within a quarter-mile of a community garden, farmer’s market and/or healthy corner store.

Having healthy food close to home is a valuable community resource, especially for a parent juggling work and child-rearing, who has a tight schedule and budget. And clearly both time and money also shape food access, as a new NPR and Robert Wood Johnson poll indicate.

Yet, while the city works to increase the number of places where residents can buy (or grow) food, we might also be thinking about creative ways to bring community members to the healthy grocery stores. The Atlantic Cities mentions the idea of an express bus service from underserved neighborhood to a grocery store. Another possibility may be bringing food to neighborhoods without grocery stores, perhaps through a delivery service.

What do you think? What other policy solutions could help expand access to healthy food in DC?

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