Food deserts and supermarket incentivization programs in New York City

PhD research project – 2016 to 2019 – Michael Chrobok

The twentieth century has been witness to major changes in the nature of North American grocery retailing. Small, independent stores have been supplanted by supermarkets as the leading food purchasing venue. Suburbanization has enticed these retailers to locate outside of inner cities with the prospect of enhanced profit margins. Such trends have transformed many low-income urban areas into “food deserts”, districts where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to a lack of full-service grocery retailers. Although officials and activists have begun to develop interventions to address the existence of food deserts, little is known about how these initiatives: [1] are discursively framed by providers; [2] impact food desert residents; and [3] potentially challenge or perpetuate existing injustices based on class, race, age, and/or ability.

This project aims to address these knowledge gaps by critically examining New York City’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program. Established in 2010 as a means of enhancing food access in an urban area where up to three million people face barriers to acquiring groceries, FRESH issues financial incentives to supermarkets to establish and operate in neighbourhoods under-served by food retailers.

Using the case of FRESH, and drawing on theories of inclusion and food justice — an approach which emphasizes the equitable distribution of benefits and risks related to the production, distribution, and consumption of food — this research asks: How are food desert amelioration strategies conceptualized by providers and perceived by individuals residing in the areas these projects are designed to serve?

I will use my training in mixed methods to address this question. I will combine content analyses of policies, news articles, and organizational documents with key informant interviews to uncover how FRESH activists and policymakers understand their work and its outcomes. I will also conduct a large-scale survey to explore how people living in areas targeted by food desert interventions view these initiatives, supplementing this data with insights from interviews with a sample of survey respondents.

This research will illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of current food desert amelioration efforts like FRESH, and may prove useful in enhancing the development of inclusionary interventions into urban food accessibility.

References and Further Reading:

Gottlieb, Robert, and Joshi, Anupama. Food Justice. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2010.

Larsen, Kristian, and Gilliland, Jason, “Mapping the Evolution of Food Deserts in a Canadian City: Supermarket Accessibility in London Ontario, 1961-2005.” International Journal of Health Geographics 7, no. 16 (2001): 1-16.

The City of New York. “Food Retail Expansion to Support Health.” The City of New York.

The City of New York. “Healthy Food Access and Awareness.” The City of New York.