Understanding Access to Grocery Stores in Food Deserts in Baltimore City

Project Abstract

As American cities have seen a change in land uses in urban areas, with stores moving to suburban areas increasing the reliance on cars, many urban areas are left with a lack of accessible quality food options. These food insecure areas, commonly known as food deserts, where residents lack both access and sufficient economic resources to purchase healthy food, result in health disparities for residents in these communities. Though the existence of food deserts are well known among researchers, there is a lack of consensus on how food deserts are defined and identified. Through a survey of 573 Baltimore City residents, this study provides an in-depth analysis of individual grocery store choice and travel decisions. The study found that most people grocery shopped 2-4 times in a given month and at 2-3 different grocery stores; the choice of the store depends on the items purchased. In evaluating food desert metrics, two common assumptions are made: (1) trips originate from home and (2) people shop at the nearest store. This study found that the second assumption does not hold as an overwhelming percentage of those surveyed (77%) do not shop at their nearest grocery store.

By using the survey data, the authors of this study identified user-generated data-driven indicators with statistical significance for developing a novel food desert metric using CHAID decision trees. A new healthy food priority area measure was developed for Baltimore that deemed all residential areas where the median income of the census block group is less than $35,000 as food insecure. A prioritization matrix was developed based on the secondary factors of proximity to the nearest grocery store (at the half-mile threshold) and the number of stores within 3 miles. This measure found a significant difference in the frequency of grocery store visits as well as the quality of food for those who live in a food desert as opposed to those who do not. The results of this study showed that people value choice of stores when grocery shopping. Limiting food desert measures to the distance to the nearest supermarket undervalues the importance of choice and variety in food selection. The data-driven yet simplistic methodology presented can be replicated to other municipalities as developing an accurate method of prioritizing areas for investments to reduce food disparities is vital to addressing the prevailing systemic divestiture of resources on communities.

Read the full report.

Impacts and Outcomes

This research creates a new metric for determining food deserts, one that more accurately reflects how people grocery shop.

Universities and Sponsoring Organizations Involved

Morgan State University

U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary-Research

Principal Investigators

Celeste Chavis, email: celeste.chavis@morgan.edu

Anita Jones, email: anita.jones@morgan.edu

Funding Sources and Amounts

U.S. DOT $60,000

Completion Date

July 2020


food desert, access, mode choice