Grocery Access 

Some areas of the country have limited access to nutritious and affordable food; these areas have commonly been called “food deserts.”  The term “food apartheid” has also been used because “desert” implies that this phenomenon is natural or neutral, but inequitable distribution of affordable food outlets is the result of human-made systems, like redlining, housing and employment discrimination, and “White flight.”[1] This barrier is even higher for low-income households, for whom transportation costs to a far-away store are a heavier burden.[2] This report follows the terminology used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS); since 2013 they use the terms “low income and low access” because it more accurately reflects what is measured.[3] Across the U.S. in 2019, 40% of the population lived more than a mile away from a food store, 30% lived within a half mile, and 30% lived between one mile and one-half mile away.[4]
Grocery stores, supermarkets, and super centers are used for this measure; convenience stores, restaurants, and other food outlets are excluded because they are more likely to be expensive and less likely to have fresh produce. Access to healthy, affordable food is essential for physical and financial thriving. The USDA’s Economic Research Service reports food access according to income and proximity to grocery stores, supermarkets, or supercenters at the census tract level.[5],[6] The USDA assigns census tracts to low access and/or low income categories if a large number of residents in a census tract meet specific criteria, adapted for this report as described below. For example, if an urban census tract has 33% low-income residents and the closest retailer is more than a half mile away, it is labeled “low income and low access.”
Definitions of Low and Very Low Grocery Access Census Tracts by Income
  • Any Income and Low Access: At least 500 people or at least 33% of the population is greater than one half mile from the nearest retailer for urban census tracts or greater than 10 miles for rural census tracts. 
  • Any Income and Very Low Access: At least 500 people or at least 33% of the population is greater than one mile from the nearest retailer for urban census tracts or greater than 20 miles for rural census tracts. 
  • Low Income (Low and Very Low Access): 20% or more of people in the census tract has family income at or below the Federal poverty thresholds by family size, the median family income is less than or equal to 80% of the State--wide median family income, or the tract is in a metropolitan area and the median family income is less than or equal to 80% of the metropolitan area’s median family income. 
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food Access Research Atlas. Accessed September 7, 2022.
The most recent data available from the USDA at the time of analysis were released in 2019. There were many areas of the county with either low access or very low access regardless of income (Figure 1). There were fewer areas of the county such as Chula Vista, El Cajon, and several areas in central and north central San Diego that were identified as both low-income and low or very low access (Figure 2).
This measure has some limitations. For example, it does not consider transportation access. If a low-income household in a rural area does not have a reliable vehicle or access to public transit, a 10-mile distance to a grocery store may be insurmountably far away. It does not consider some ways of accessing food, like subsistence farming, barter, farmers’ markets, or club stores like Costco. Food outlets also vary by food quality; grocery stores and other types of retailers included in this measure may not have adequate healthy, affordable food available. Additionally, this measure is released infrequently and may not be reflective of current conditions.

Data Information
Data Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food Access Research Atlas, 2019.
  • Unavailable data are census tracts that do not meet the grocery access criteria or have missing data.
References 
  1. Gripper, A. B., Nethery, R., Cowger, T. L., White, M., Kawachi, I., & Adamkiewicz, G. (2022). Community solutions to food apartheid: A spatial analysis of community food-growing spaces and neighborhood demographics in Philadelphia. Social Science & Medicine, 310, 115221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.115221
  2. Walker, R. E., Keane, C. R., & Burke, J. G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & Place, 16(5), 876–884. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.04.013
  3. Introduction to the Food Access Research Atlas. Economic Research Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from, https://gisportal.ers.usda.gov/portal/apps/experiencebuilder/experience/?id=a53ebd7396cd4ac3a3ed09137676fd40
  4. Rhone, A. (2019). Low-Income and Low-Foodstore-Access Census Tracts, 2015–19. 2. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/104158/eib-236_summary.pdf?v=9920.8
  5. USDA ERS - Download the Data. (2019). Retrieved May 10, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/download-the-data/
  6. USDA. (n.d.). ERS -Documentation. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/documentation/
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Updated February 7, 2024