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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AAG 2017 CFP: People-Centred Food Policy

Luke Craven (University of Sydney) and I will be organizing a series of paper sessions on people-centred food policy at the 2017 meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston. Please see the call for papers below, and do get in touch if you are interested in participating! 

CFP: People-Centred Food Policy — 2017 American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting — Boston, MA — April 5-9, 2017

Organizers: Luke Craven, University of Sydney, Chrobok, University of Toronto,

Person-centred policy is a philosophical approach to governance increasingly popular in medical and health circles which seeks to place individuals at the heart of policymaking. In acknowledging the significance of lived encounters with the food system, this perspective aims to foreground and respect the idiosyncrasy of human experience and understanding in the way we design and ‘do’ food policy. Central to this viewpoint is a recognition of persons as whole and complex beings, whose engagements with food and entanglements with the food system may be inflected by such factors as personal beliefs and values, social and familial contexts, cultural backgrounds, physical health, housing, education, and employment.

The aim of these two paper sessions is to draw together diverse perspectives, experiences, and empirical research on food policy to explore where and how the lives of everyday people can be (re)centred in its development, implementation, and evaluation. How can we make people-centred approaches work in – or be amenable to – different geographic and policy contexts? What should our approaches to food and nutrition look like in the face of increasingly complexity? Crucially, how can we ensure that the preferences, needs, and values of food system stakeholders remain at the core of the work we do?

To participate in these sessions, please send a paper title, abstract (250 words maximum), five keywords, author(s), institutional affiliation, and contact information to Luke Craven ( and Michael Chrobok ( by September 30, 2016.

All accepted participants will be required to register and submit their abstracts to the AAG ( and send their abstract PIN number to the session organizers by October 27, 2016. Participants will also be asked to circulate a draft paper to the organizers by March 1, 2017.

Beyond Street Meat?

Hot Dog Cart

The official motto of Toronto (2015) is “diversity our strength”; yet, when it comes to the local street food scene, the city has been critiqued for failing to live up to this banner (Siabanis, 2012). This is arguably not a result of a lack of initiative. In 2009, the City of Toronto started the “A La Cart” program, a government-supported initiative that aimed to widen street food offerings by introducing branded carts with expanded, “healthier” menus (Siabanis, 2012). This project, however, was terminated in 2011 by City Council (Cook, 2014); it was ultimately not profitable for vendors, and featured several barriers to participation, such as a ban on making modifications to existing carts (Siabanis, 2012).

Following A La Cart’s demise, a Street Food Working Group was established to explore the possibility of expanding menus at Toronto’s hot dog carts. In June 2012, City Council approved the Working Group’s recommendations, amending municipal by-laws to remove legal restrictions on the types of food that street food vendors may sell from their carts or trucks. Vendors became permitted to serve what they wished, so long as their premises met Toronto Public Health’s standards regarding preparation capacity and food storage (Cook, 2014).

This change theoretically opened the door for street food vendors in Toronto to feature a wider array of product offerings at their stands. However, as of late 2014, the menus at many carts remained limited, with few selling more than an assortment of hot dogs and sausages. Why was this the case? Could things actually change? Would it be feasible to have a greater assortment of food sold at Toronto’s hot dog carts?

Working in partnership with the Toronto Food Strategy, two undergraduate colleagues and I set out to provide preliminary answers to these questions.

Over the fall and winter of 2014-2015, we held informal conversations with a sample of the city’s hot dog vendors from the downtown core. My collaborators and I asked vendors about the challenges they faced in running their businesses, their current menus, and whether they had any “dream dish” ideas of their own. While the full version of our report can be found here, the central findings of our research are worth briefly highlighting.

Downtown Map

Through our conversations with vendors, we learned that cart owners and operators were indeed interested in expanding their menus. Nearly everyone we spoke with had at least one dream dish that they wanted to add to their lineups and sell from their carts. Multiple vendors stated that they wished to supply fries, burgers, steak, and souvlaki from their stands. Others furnished more unique responses: shawarma, biryani, Japanese noodles, and Bulgarian-style ground spiced meat; chicken, ribs, lettuce wraps, and bean chili; sandwiches, salads, and warm breakfast muffins; coffee, hot chocolate, and organic honey beer were all mentioned by vendors as potential additions to their existing menus.

Dream Dish 2

Many of these dream dishes reflected a desire by vendors to express their own cultural backgrounds in their carts; however, business considerations also guided these suggestions. The product ideas that vendors discussed were seen as ways to make additional profits during slow winter months, to offset competition from fast food restaurants and food courts, and to keep up with rival cart and food truck operators. In asking about their dream dishes, then, my collaborators and I learned that vendors did wish to expand their menus to include a wider selection of items.

Yet, despite these desires, vendors were reluctant to make any tangible changes to their current product lineups. The reasons for this were four-fold.


Space: In order to be able to add more items to their menus, vendors needed additional space to prepare, refrigerate, and store this food. Some also said the design or layout of their cart would have to change to accommodate the equipment that selling new products would require. Vendors argued that existing regulations were preventing them from making these changes. City bylaws specify that vendors are not allowed to take up more than 2.32 square metres of sidewalk space. Cart owners and operators felt these sidewalk footprint rules were too restrictive. They wanted the City to give them more room to operate. One vendor specifically requested “an extra 4 feet” of space on the sidewalk, a change he felt would allow him to introduce shawarma to his cart. Another vendor feared that modifying his grill setup – an adjustment he thought was necessary to expand his menu – would draw the attention of the City and cause him to be shut down. He complained: “We’re limited – they like to micromanage.” There was a general consensus among vendors that the City must allow them to take up more space on the sidewalk, and adopt a more hands-off approach when it came to cart layout, in order for them to effectively expand their menus.

Permits: Permits were seen as another barrier. Vendors thought that excessive paperwork would be involved in expanding their menus. Many were also unclear about how the permit process worked or what City permits allowed for. Some vendors thought their dream dish ideas would not be approved by the City, and that they would be shut down if they tried to introduce new items. Others believed, incorrectly, that they had to seek out a special permit to sell new products. Talk of needing to get a “fries permit” at an additional fee was common. One vendor knew that he would have to request a change to his existing permit if he was to introduce new items, but he viewed this process as too much of a hassle. There was thus a lot of uncertainty and animosity among vendors about the permitting process, and this was partly to blame for a lack of action on the part of vendors to expand their menus.

Demand: A perceived lack of public demand and fears of high competition were a third barrier. Some vendors felt it would be too risky to sell new items in their carts. There was no guarantee that people would buy them, especially if food trucks or restaurants were nearby that already sold similar products. In addition, a few vendors were concerned that people would never go to a hot dog cart to buy something other than a hot dog or sausage. To quote one vendor: “If you’re gonna eat healthy, you’re not gonna come here.” A fear that any new items simply would not sell was another factor responsible for keeping cart menus limited.

Employment Status: A final barrier to menu expansion raised by vendors was their employment status. Some who had compelling ideas for new products were simply waged or salaried employees, and were not the actual cart owners. These workers felt that their thoughts could not result in action because they did not have the power to challenge their bosses about the current cart menus. This sense of precarity also functioned to maintain the menu status-quo.

The revelation of these four barriers prompted my collaborators and I to present the following recommendations to the Toronto Food Strategy:

1) The City should work with vendors, local business improvement areas, and other actors to reformulate its by-laws about the use of sidewalk space. Spatial constraints were, by far, the most-cited barrier to menu expansion. Providing vendors with more room to prepare, store, and refrigerate their food could allow them to add to their menus. At the same time, issuing more space may help alleviate prospective public fears of spoilage or poor sanitation, if potential customers can see that vendors are able to make adjustments to keep pace with enhanced offerings.

2) The City should strengthen its communication with hot dog vendors, particularly in terms of conveying its rules. There seemed to be a lot of confusion surrounding permits, what vendors were legally allowed to sell, and how they were to go about getting permission to do so. Better outreach could help address this uncertainty, increase trust with the City, and reduce fears of spontaneous shut-downs that many cart operators worried may occur if they decided to modify their menus. Information that is shared with cart owners should also be communicated to their employees, wherever this is applicable.

3) Finally, vendors must be shown that an actual demand does indeed exist for expanded menu offerings. Cart owners will not make changes to their menus unless they can be assured that the public will respond favourably. Surveys, product taste-tests, and marketing assistance, perhaps with help from the City or the private sector, are some of the potential ways that this demand can be demonstrated to those with the greatest capacity to effect change.

As this preliminary research demonstrates, food carts in Toronto need not just sell hot dogs – the potential is there, in our city, to move beyond street meat.



City of Toronto. (2015). Coat of arms and city motto. Retrieved from

Cook, T. (2014). New opportunities for Toronto’s street food vendors. Retrieved from

Province of Ontario. (2010). Appendix: Nutrition standards for Ontario schools. Retrieved from

Siabanis, N. (2012, Jan. 6). Grey Toronto: The food vending situation. Spacing. Retrieved from