B. Grocery Stores Leave Urban Areas

Food retail in the United States had been “gradually changing since the first arrival of chain grocery stores” before World War I and chain supermarkets after World War II. As the middle class flocked to suburbia, a depressed urban economy made it difficult to keep supermarkets or other businesses in the area. Malls, promising one-stop shopping and huge parking lots began opening closer to the suburbs. By 1960, over 65 percent of food was purchased at supermarkets, and by 1975 corporations owned the same percentage of the entire food retail market. This new food structure pulled money away from urban areas and directed it to the corporate headquarters. At the same time, access to food became directly tied to locations of supermarkets. By the 1980s and 1990s, superstores, such as Costco (which can only be reached by automobile) had taken charge of food retail, leaving the inner cities few options for food shopping. Once shopping options became limited, liquor stores began to serve as a main source of food in urban areas. The food for sale in these corner stores is typically processed (fresh fruits and vegetables are not available), and is generally more expensive than what could be found in a supermarket. As businesses left the cities, low-income urban real estate became devalued. This divestment created a landscape such as Detroit's, where flight from urban areas left over 30,000 acres vacant.

1. Transportation Barriers

“Food deserts” or grocery gaps can also be understood as a transportation gap. When the post-World War II supermarket expansion corresponded with the increase in use of the automobile, the need for customer parking drove most supermarket construction to the suburbs, where large, inexpensive tracts of land were readily available. Perplexingly, most urban light rail systems were not planned to reach grocery stores despite the relatively small number of cars in urban areas compared to the suburbs. Attempts to solve this oversight, or to address the connection between lack of transportation and access to food has been largely “absent from any transportation policy or food retail management planning.” The federal Transportation Bill for example, neglects to include “food distribution or food access considerations in the various projects and subsidies” created by the legislation. In addition, studies documenting inequality in access to transportation have found that 19 percent of African-Americans and 13.7 percent of Latinos lack access to cars, compared with only 4.6 percent of Whites.

2. Complexity of the Grocery Gap

At first glance, it may seem that the lack of access to fresh, healthy food in low-income communities would be easily resolved by the addition of supermarkets into these areas. However, the grocery stores that have either remained in or returned to low-income areas tend to contribute to the problem by “offering and often prominently displaying highly processed foods, candy, snacks and sodas.” Additionally, as food retail becomes increasingly globalized, grocery stores are able to determine “long-distance supply chains and product selections . . .” This scenario has stripped supermarkets of local and culturally responsive food.