Growing disparities in an urban food desert: Downtown Albany longitudinal food environment studies

Date01 August 2019
Published date01 August 2019
Growing disparities in an urban food desert: Downtown Albany
longitudinal food environment studies
Akiko S. Hosler
Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics,
University at Albany School of Public Health,
Albany, New York
Akiko S. Hosler, Department of Epidemiology
and Biostatistics, University at Albany Health
Sciences Campus, GEC 119, One University
Place, Rensselaer, NY 12144.
Funding information
New York State Department of Health, Grant/
Award Numbers: Maternal and Child Health
Block and 20090509; Research Foundation
for the State of New York (University at
Albany Faculty Research Awards Program A);
Centers for disease Control and Prevention,
Grant/Award Number: U48 CCU 220083
This paper presents findings from our longitudinal study of food environments in two
exemplary, contrasting urban neighborhoods in Downtown Albany, New York. The
minority neighborhood(74% racial/ethnic minority population) is a food desert
by the United States Department of Agriculture's definition, whereas the adjacent
mixed neighborhood(33% minority population) is not. The longterm trend analysis
(19702018) of the macrolevel food environment found that although the minority
neighborhood lost all supermarkets and remains supermarketless since the late
1990s, the mixed neighborhood was able to retain several supermarkets and since
2008, it gained a new supermarket every 35 years. The mediumterm trend analysis
(20032015) of the microlevel food environment revealed a more complex picture of
changing food environments. The total number of food stores in the minority neigh-
borhood increased in much greater rates than the mixed neighborhood in the 12year
period, and accordingly, the standardized availability measures for anyfresh fruits
and fresh vegetables increased significantly in the minority neighborhood. The stan-
dardized availability measure for adequate (five or more) varieties of nutritionally
desirable fresh fruits and vegetables, however, did not increase in the minority neigh-
borhood. Because the mixed neighborhood saw steady increases in such measures,
disparities between the two neighborhoods grew incrementally and reached the
highest point (rate ratio of over 5.0) in 2015. In this paper, there are also sections
to provide historical and contextual background of our food environment research,
as well as discussion on intervention ideas to address the disparities in fresh produce
availability focusing on ethnic markets.
It is widely believed that the term food desertwas coined in the
United Kingdom, and it first appeared in a report submitted to the
local health department in Radlett, Hertfordshire, in 1995 (Beau-
mont, Lang, Leather, & Mucklow, 1995). It was soon pointed out,
however, that the notion of food desert was not empirically derived:
It was merely a metaphor to depict complex interlinkages between
increasing differential access to food retail provision, social exclu-
sion, poor dietary consequences, and health inequalities among the
urban poor (Wrigley, Warm, Margetts, & Whelan, 2002). In fact,
studies that systematically measured physical access to food sources
(i.e., walking distance to and density of stores stocking essential
foods) in lowincome neighborhoods in the United Kingdom did
not find evidence to support the food desert hypothesis, including
its impact on dietary behavior (Cummins & MacIntyre, 1999;
Donkin, Dowler, Stevenson, & Turner, 1999; Pearson, Russell,
Campbell, & Barker, 2005). This led to a call for more rigorous food
environment research, but skepticism that food deserts are
factoidslingered in the public health community in the United
Kingdom (Cummins & Macintyre, 2002).
By the late 1990s, American economists were well aware that
both urban and rural lowincome residents had reduced access to
nutritiously important foods and paid more for them than their mid-
dleclass counterparts (Alwitt & Donley, 1997; Chung & Myers,
1999; Kaufman, 1999). The public health community, on the other
Received: 5 April 2018 Revised: 10 May 2018 Accepted: 11 July 2018
DOI: 10.1002/pa.1851
J Public Affairs. 2019;19:e1851.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, 1of9

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