Food deserts and supermarket development programs in the United States

PhD Research Project – 2017 to 2020 – Michael Chrobok

BACKGROUND: Since 2004, government programs promoting grocery store construction have spread across the United States, a response to accessibility concerns raised by the ‘food desert’ discourse. While studies have already taken place examining the effects of new retail on diets, research on supermarket development programs remains limited in 3 ways:

  • First, accounts of policy creation have often treated events as happening in a “bubble”, neglecting the links that actually exist between places and policies.
  • Second, not much attention has been given to the decision-making processes that have led to the adoption of retail-based ‘solutions’ to accessibility issues – issues that have more complex structural causes.
  • Finally, little is known about how incentive programs actually operate compared to their stated goals, and what impacts these initiatives have beyond food consumption patterns.

CASE STUDY: My research addresses these knowledge gaps through a study of the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program in New York: the first municipal policy in the U.S. to use a combination of zoning and financial tools to promote supermarket development at an urban scale.

My thesis asks and seeks to answer 3 related questions:

  1. How is the development and functioning of FRESH linked to policy action occurring in other spaces and scales?
  2. Why was a retail-based solution chosen as the preferred policy ‘fix’ for food access issues in New York?
  3. How does the operation of FRESH compare to how the program, its aims, and outcomes have been spoken of by its champions? To what extent does this program work towards food ‘justice’?

METHODS: Document analysis of public policies, meeting minutes, and incentive applications will let me trace the history of supermarket development programs in the U.S., and will show how key players have spoken about these initiatives over time. Geographic information systems (GIS) analysis will allow me to map the distribution of development incentives and explore their connections with neighborhood need in New York. Interviews with actors involved in the design, administration, and outcomes of FRESH will shed more light on how the program is linked to other jurisdictions, and will reveal who has been helped or harmed by the development projects this program has encouraged.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Academically, my work will offer new insights into policy circulation and transformation, contributing to a “policy mobilities” literature that hasn’t really considered the recent explosion of interest in food-related government programming. My study will also be of interest to scholars of ‘revitalization’ as my thesis highlights the implications – for community members, small businesses, and civic leaders – of development incentives in neighborhoods experiencing economic decline and disinvestment. Beyond the university, my thesis will help American policymakers better understand the impact their programs are having on key stakeholders and could shape how initiatives like FRESH emerge or evolve. Finally, as programs promoting supermarket development remain rare in Canada despite local struggles with food insecurity, my work will provide officials here with valuable lessons to learn from.

CONTACT INFORMATION: For more information about this study, or to volunteer for an interview, please contact me by telephone at (929) 215-1323 or by email at


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