Soundings

Ethan Epstein
Defining Food Deserts Down
Portland goes diet-crazy.
Spring 2012

On the northern cusp of Portland, Oregon, the St. Johns district is certainly no “food desert”—as activists call neighborhoods, mostly low-income, that are short on grocery stores. A 54,000-square-foot Safeway supermarket dominates the area, selling fresh produce, meat, and frozen goods. Just a few blocks away stands a 13,500-square-foot Grocery Outlet, retailing food, fresh and otherwise, at steep discounts. And for residents of the Bobo persuasion, a small neighborhood store, Proper Eats, specializes in organic and vegan groceries.

Yet thanks to a program called the Healthy Retail Initiative—administered by Multnomah County, home of Portland, and funded by federal money from the Centers for Disease Control—another store in the neighborhood, El Compadre Market, has received taxpayer money to “increase community access to healthy, affordable food.” El Compadre, which doubles as a restaurant selling greasy burritos and hamburgers, has received $4,500 in public money to buy grains and install a walk-in freezer. So far, Multnomah County has doled out grants of up to $4,500 each to at least 22 Portland stores, all in the name of providing “access” to fresh food. Many recipients, like El Compadre, stand in close proximity to grocery stores. El Tepeyac, for example, is 0.3 miles from a Fred Meyer grocery store (the local Kroger affiliate); another, Alberta Market, is just 0.8 miles from a Safeway.

In justifying the program, the county says that “many communities in Multnomah County do not have easy access to full-service grocery stores and instead rely on small neighborhood stores for many of their daily food needs.” Given that many establishments receiving subsidies are located in neighborhoods that don’t lack full-service grocery stores, the “providing access” explanation seems suspect. What might the real motive be? Consider some of the strings attached to the grants, such as the requirement that healthy food at subsidized stores must be available at the checkout counter or in a “highly visible area marked with ‘healthy options here’ signs.” This sounds like an attempt at “nudging,” the behavioral-economics approach popularized by former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, which holds that people can be steered toward making “better” decisions without their conscious awareness. Put a nice shiny apple on the counter, and the customer may think twice about going for the bag of chips. The paternalistic approach comes with a racial subtext: many of the Portland stores receiving subsidies serve predominantly Mexican and black customers.

Not to be outdone, the city of Portland has its own program to assist “underserved areas.” According to USDA guidelines, neighborhoods more than a mile from a grocery store (and meeting certain below-average-income requirements) qualify as food deserts. Portland, however, deems low-income areas a mere half-mile from a grocery store “underserved,” despite the fact that 94 percent of Portland households report owning at least one car (compared with 70 percent of households in San Francisco and 46 percent in New York). Further, to meet the city’s income threshold, an area need only have a median household income lower than what the city government identifies as Portland’s median household income of $54,352. (This despite the fact that according to the 2010 census, Portland’s median household income was actually $48,831.) And if the center of a census tract is more than half a mile from a full-service grocery store, the entire tract is labeled underserved. As a result, Portland boasts “food deserts” containing Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Grocery Outlet stores simply because those outlets are more than half a mile from the center of the local census tract.

Portland is offering a bevy of tax incentives and subsidies to grocery stores willing to locate in these putatively underserved areas. Last year, the city reviewed bids from locally owned chain New Seasons, as well as national giants like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart, which is now the nation’s largest retailer of organic food. (No successful bids have been announced yet.) Perversely, Portland taxpayers could end up funneling money to Trader Joe’s—or even the dreaded Walmart—to set up shop just steps from an extant grocery store. It’s a nice deal for politically favored businesses but a perversion of the market economy and a highly dubious use of public dollars.

Other cities are implementing anti-food-desert policies as well. In Minneapolis, a program similar to the Healthy Retail Initiative provides grants to corner stores to stock produce. Washington, D.C., is giving corner stores in food deserts grants of up to $1,500 to install refrigerators, shelving, and other equipment for stocking produce. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently introduced an ordinance to allow large-scale urban agriculture projects within city limits. These cities use a one-mile standard to define food deserts instead of the half-mile that Portland employs, though they do measure food deserts by census tract, as Portland does.

In many cases, food-desert policies are thinly veiled behavior-modification schemes or sweetheart subsidies for connected businesses. Worse, these programs obscure genuine fresh-food access problems, which do exist in far-flung rural communities and in poor urban neighborhoods lacking transportation. By seeking to nudge us all to eat better, the bureaucrats could end up failing to help those actually in need of assistance.

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