[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]
Daniel Block’s recent study is entitled Where are the Tomatoes? Supermarket Access and LINK Card utilization in the Chicago Area. The geographic study explores the distribution of food markets throughout the city in relation to the population density and number of Illinois link card users and link accepting stores. The study creates useful distinctions between kinds of food markets including Warehouse Clubs (Sams’ Club, Cosco), Supercenters (Super Target, Super Walmart, Super K-Mart, Meijer), Discount Chains (Aldi, Save-a-lot, Ultra, Food 4 Less), Specialty Chains (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Peoples Market, Wild Oats), and Full Service Chains (Cub, Jewel, Dominicks, Piggly Wiggly). Using ‘layers’ of data in his G.I.S. (Geographic Information System) maps, Block can visualize the ‘food deserts’ that exist in the city’s ‘foodscape’, revealing areas that have extremely limited access to healthy food. The maps have incredibly important implications for policy makers, urban food growers and engaged citizens alike.
In producing your recent study, how did you and your collaborators conceive of “access”? What factors about food quality and proximity to households effect that definition?
In this part of the project, we really are thinking of access as a geographic thing. Good food access means not having to leave your community to buy groceries. With the link study, however, we can study whether people leave their communities to use their link food stamp dollars. If many are, then we can assume that they feel that stores outside of their communities are preferable to those in their own community.
In other parts of the project, we are going to stores to assess the price and quality of food in community groceries and supermarkets. Here we think of access as being able to find healthy, affordable food in your own community. Healthy food is hard to define, but it often focuses on access to fresh produce, although there is much more than this.
Your study very clearly breaks down different kinds of food markets based on size and corporate structure. What was the most impressive geographic pattern that you observed about these stores and how they are distributed throughout the city?
Discount stores are definitely concentrated in non-white areas and national full-service chains are definitely more concentrated in areas with lower percentages of African-Americans. This, I think is the most striking result, especially when combined with the link data that shows that the mainly African-American West and South sides have a great amount of “outflow” of link money.
If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?
I think the main thing in terms of food access is having a wide variety of healthy food available at an affordable price. There are some stores in other cities that specialize in providing a “Whole Foods”-like shopping experience including a wide variety of local foods, only less expensive and specializing less in specialty foods. I think also a system of grocery delivery and free buses to stores from underserved areas and areas with many people without cars would be great.
Daniel Block, firstname.lastname@example.org , 773-995-2310