No Food Deserts? Mapping Retail Food Stores in NYC

In the past decade access to fresh and healthy food has been a prominent issue. From Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, the current food movement is well covered by the media.  Much progress has been made in the past few years, such a being able to use EBT at farmers’ markets and concerted efforts to bring more grocery stores to New York City. From 2009 to 2011, while I was still pursuing my undergraduate education, I worked in several Anti-Hunger Advocacy organizations in New York City and Philadelphia assisting people with their food stamp (SNAP) benefits and distributing Neighborhood Guides to Food and Assistance.

In 2008 the Department of Planning in NYC even conducted research, concluded, and presented that there was a dire shortage of grocery stores and larger supermarkets in our city. The New York Times also reported on this in an article entitled, “The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need of Replenishment.” In 2011 the United States Department of Agriculture released an interactive map, called the Food Desert Locator, that identified areas where food deserts exist. What is a food desert exactly? It is a region in which there is low access to fresh, nutritious, and affordable food. Many times these areas are also low income, so some have moved towards using the term “food poverty.” One of the most shocking conclusions drawn from this map was that there were no food deserts in New York City. This received media attention, such as this article in the Village Voice. People working in food justice in NYC knew this to not be the case. Today the USDA map is called the Food Access Research Atlas. Below is a a screenshot that shows that there are only a handful of areas in the five boroughs which are both low income and low access. I recommend visiting the map directly in order to zoom in for more detail.

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Screenshot of the Food Access Research Atlas showing “Food Deserts,” Low Income and Low Access in the five boroughs

I’m still very passionate about equitable food access and justice so I wanted to examine whether there are areas in which there continues to be low access to grocery stores. The USDA also has another interactive map tool called the Food Environment Atlas. Through these maps I was able to see that many grocery stores have opened up from 2007 to 2011. Screenshots from those maps are shown below. However I wanted to know if this truly was enough of a change.

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Screenshot of the Food Environment Atlas showing that new grocery stores have markedly opened up within the five boroughs.
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Screenshot of the Food Environment Atlas showing Grocery store density, detail shows a 44% increase in grocery stores in Brooklyn from 2007 to 2011.

So I decided to find a data set that would list all the grocery stores in the 5 boroughs. I was lucky enough to find a data set from the New York State open data repository that listed all of the retail food stores in New York State that was updated in 2014. I filtered the data by county name to return information from only the 5 boroughs. The total number of food retail stores in NYC is 68,636! Professor Sula helped me clean up the data. We discovered that Excel can calculate a latitude and longitude string, so I was able to bring the enormous data set into CartoDB.

Screen shot of the five boroughs showing the density of food retail locations.
Screen shot of the five boroughs showing the density of food retail locations.

I wanted to be able to filter out delis that typically do not have fresh, nutritious, and affordable foods, but that was a challenge. Since delis are usually smaller and this data set included square footage, I decided to use anything above 800 square feet as a cut off for stores that were probably supermarkets or groceries. However, there are many small specialty stores that sell nutritious food, so this is not the best way to solve the issue of which stores are delis or not. This type of granular data can be lost in the shuffle. (The Food Trust of Philadelphia conducted a research project and has a Healthy Corner Store Initiative to see which delis were already selling fresh produce and enabling more of them to profitably provide healthier food) I am still not sure of whether there’s a better method of distinguishing the delis without healthy food from small markets, and I have yet to find a dataset that makes this distinction. The difficult question that I am posing, whether or not the increase in food retailers has put a dent in food deserts in NYC, is not easily answered by this data. I cannot even know whether or not a large store provides healthy food as many large stores are of the 99 cent variety that may have the square footage, but do not have fresh produce.

Setting aside these concerns the data set visualised very well. However screen shots do not provide these maps justice. Here’s the link to be able to zoom in and examine by neighbourhood:

The following visualization are cloropleth maps. The range from yellow to red shows the square footage, with yellow being a smaller store to dark red being a large store. Brownsville and Ocean Hill have the highest food insecurity rate at 31%. The neighbourhood of Bedford Stuyvesant has a food insecurity rate of 27%. When we compare the maps we see that Brownsville has a less dense distribution of stores, but they tend to be larger. Whereas in Bedford Stuyvesant, there are a lot of smaller sized stores.

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Brownsville Food Retailers by Square Footage
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Bedford Stuyvesant Food Retailers by Square Footage

Unfortunately I do not think I am able to provide an answer to my initial question or draw any insightful conclusion. I hope that in the future I’m able to work with a data set that will let us know where the food deserts exist in NYC.

Re-iteration of links:

Where I got the data:

My cartodb link again:

Food poverty:

 – J.E. Molly Seegers

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