Supermarkets' power desertifies our diets

April 17, 2008

Urban food deserts - areas where people have low or no access to food shops - exist in major cities, according to research published in the open access publication International Journal of Health Geographics, with important implications for public health policies. In an exploration of food deserts in the Canadian city of London, Ontario, Kristian Larsen and Jason Gilliland of The University of Western Ontario Geography Department mapped and compared supermarket locations in the city in 1961 and 2005 and assess the changing levels of residents' access.

Gilliland explained: "More and more supermarkets are building in newer suburbs and smaller food shops are disappearing from older neighbourhoods leaving food deserts in their wake. Poor people with no car can be severely adversely affected by living in food deserts and are more likely to suffer from bad health and low quality of life with diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Poor inner city residents have the poorest access to supermarkets and Central and East London were the worst affected."

The researchers assessed people's access to shops by foot and public transport. Geographic mapping techniques were used to map and analyze grocery store locations. Residents of several areas of the city had limited access to one of the city's 28 supermarkets. Those people living in food deserts paid almost double the price as their supermarket shopping counterparts for supplies from small local convenience stores.

Historical analysis showed that inner city areas were not always food deserts even though the city population has doubled in the 50 years. Whereas in 1961 over 75% of the population of the urban core had easy access to a supermarket, fewer than 20% of core residents have access today.

"The bottom line is people need supermarkets and vice versa," concluded Gilliland. "London should actively encourage supermarket development in food desert areas. We still need to find out from these desert residents what are the psychological, economic and personal effects. After all, the continued closure of supermarkets will lead to more unemployment and devastating affects on the health of an already vulnerable population."
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Notes to Editors:

1. Mapping the evolution of 'food deserts' in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005
Kristian Larsen and Jason Gilliland
International Journal of Health Geographics (in press)

During embargo, article available here: http://www.ij-healthgeographics.com/imedia/1017265960173206_article.pdf?random=429690

After the embargo, article available at the journal website: http://www.ij-healthgeographics.com/

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

Article citation and URL available on request at press@biomedcentral.com on the day of publication.

2. A food desert is defined as a socially distressed neighbourhood with low average home incomes and poor access to healthy food.

The mid 19th Century food was typically obtained through small independent markets integral to neighbourhoods. By the 20th Century food retailers had begun to organise into chains. Chaining was followed by the formation of supermarkets in 1930.

The most recent food shop to emerge is the superstore: a single level 25,000 square feet shop selling food and household items, with a large car park.

Supermarkets accessible by foot were 1000 m or a 10/15 minute walk from home and those accessible via a 10 minute bus ride with a 500m walk at the start or end of the journey were deemed accessible by public transport.

3. The International Journal of Health Geographics has recently published another closely related paper about Montréal's missing food deserts and the evaluation of food supermarkets accessibility http://www.ij-healthgeographics.com/content/6/1/4

4. International Journal of Health Geographics is an Open Access, peer-reviewed, online journal fully dedicated to publishing quality manuscripts on all aspects of geospatial information systems and science applications in health and healthcare.

5. BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) is an independent online publishing house committed to providing immediate access without charge to the peer-reviewed biological and medical research it publishes. This commitment is based on the view that open access to research is essential to the rapid and efficient communication of science.

BioMed Central

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