What Is It?

This overview tool serves as an introduction to four tools in the Equitable Development Toolkit—Grocery Store Development, Corner Stores, Farmers’ Markets, and Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens—that help low-income and communities of color increase their access to healthy, fresh, affordable food.

Disparities in Food Access. In many low-income communities across the country, the only places to buy food are fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that sell fatty, sugary, processed products. Some communities have no food vendors of any kind. The lack of access to healthy food makes it difficult for families to eat well, fueling the country’s growing obesity epidemic and the severe health problems that are associated with it.

Low-income communities of color and low-income rural areas are most affected by limited access to healthy food. Studies have consistently shown that there are fewer supermarkets and other retail outlets selling affordable, nutritious food in low-income communities than in wealthier ones, and in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods than in predominantly white ones.

"One nationwide study found that low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets than middle-income zip codes. Compared to predominantly white zip codes, majority African American zip codes have about half the number of supermarkets, and mostly Latino zip codes have about a third as many." 

This pattern is clear in many urban areas. In Washington, DC, for example, the city’s lowest-income and almost exclusively African American wards (Wards 7 and 8) have one supermarket for every 70,000 inhabitants, while two of the three highest-income and predominantly white wards (Wards 2 and 3) have one for every 11,881 residents. One in five of the city’s food stamp recipients lives in a neighborhood without a grocery store.

Studies also find that rural communities face significant healthy food-access challenges. In one example from the Mississippi Delta, nearly three-quarters of households that qualify for food stamp benefits must travel more than 30 miles to reach a large grocery store or supermarket. Residents of underserved communities typically lack the transportation to easily make trips to stores in other parts of town. Low-income African American and Latino households are less likely to own cars than white and higher-income households and, as a result, often must arrange rides with friends or relatives, piece together multiple bus routes, or pay for taxi rides to shop for groceries.

Rural households generally have greater access to cars, but those that often don’t—farmworkers, for example—have virtually no available public transportation to stores beyond their immediate communities. With limited transportation, low-income residents often must rely on smaller convenience stores closer to their homes. These stores usually charge much higher than supermarket prices, and their inventory is primarily high-fat, high-sugar snacks, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages.

Why Disparities in Food Access Matter. Community environments affect the eating and exercise habits of residents. Scientists and medical professionals agree that lack of easy access to healthy food and safe outdoor areas for physical activity is a key contributor to obesity. The obesity epidemic, along with related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, is most severe for low-income persons of color. Nearly a fifth of all African American children, and nearly a quarter of Mexican American, are obese, compared to a tenth of white children. Children from low-income families in general are twice as likely to be overweight as those from higher-income ones. Researchers estimate that, for the first time in American history, today’s generation of children can expect to live shorter lives than their parents, due to the health consequences of being overweight and obese.

Studies have shown that better access to healthy food corresponds to healthier eating and lower rates of obesity and diabetes. For example:

  • One study examining several U.S. states found that African Americans living in a census tract with a supermarket are more likely to meet federal guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption; for each additional supermarket, produce consumption increases by 32 percent.
  • In rural Mississippi, adults living in counties without supermarkets were 23 percent less likely to meet guidelines for daily fruit and vegetable consumption than adults living in counties with supermarkets.
  • Studies have concluded that New Yorkers and Californians living in areas with more fresh food retailers, along with fewer convenience stores and fast food restaurants, have lower rates of obesity.
  • Researchers in Indianapolis found that adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood translated into an average weight loss of three pounds for adults in that community.

Improving access to healthy food also brings economic benefits. A large, full-service supermarket creates between a hundred and two hundred full- and part-time jobs, and some emerging evidence shows that a grocery store can increase local tax revenues and stabilize or even increase local home values. A study found that tripling the amount of fresh produce that farmers sell directly to consumers at farmers’ markets in Michigan could generate as many as 1,889 new jobs and $187 million in additional personal income. Urban farms bring with them new job opportunities as well.

(For a more detailed discussion of studies on access to healthy food, see a joint research review published by PolicyLink and The Food Trust, The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters.)

This overview tool examines the problem of access to healthy food, examples of the ways research and maps have been used to highlight the problem, tips for initial steps to address the issue, and a list of helpful resources. For more detailed information about specific strategies, see the Grocery Store Tool, Corner Store Tool, Farmers’ Market Tool, and Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens Tool.