Are Poor Neighborhoods ‘Retail Deserts’?

As the nation suffers a burgeoning obesity crisis, health advocates and policymakers have zoned in on poor neighborhoods they’ve termed “food deserts” – areas with few grocery stores and other access to healthy food.

But a new USC study finds that many poor urban neighborhoods have high concentrations of grocery and other retail food outlets.

More doesn’t translate to better, the researchers said, as residents in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be living next to small mom-and-pop food stores instead of large supermarkets.

The study’s authors found impoverished neighborhoods lacked larger chain stores across a range of services, including supermarkets, drugstores, food service and the retail sector overall.

“ ‘Retail deserts’ is not an accurate label for many poor neighborhoods,” said Jenny Schuetz, professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the study’s lead author.

“It’s not a matter of how many there are – there are lots of small ‘mom-and-pop’ stores but not many larger chain stores or supermarkets,” Schuetz said. “Having access to bigger stores could mean a larger range of produce and lower prices.”

Recently published in Regional Science and Urban Economics, the research examined a range of retail and basic household services in 58 major metropolitan areas across the United States.

A shorter version of the article, written for the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, featured maps of areas that included downtown Los Angeles, which has a high density of retail establishments but comparatively is lacking in chain supermarkets.

The average size of a retail establishment increases with the neighborhood’s median income for all retail types examined in the study -overall retail, supermarkets, drugstores, clothing, food service and laundry, Schuetz said. She added that national initiatives to entice chain stores to stock healthier food may miss the mark in poor neighborhoods where the larger chains often don’t yet exist.

Schuetz said more research could help determine why chain stores still are so scarce in poor neighborhoods. The research could drive effective policy solutions to fill the void, she added.

“Low-income households presumably have the most to gain from lower prices made possible by economies of scale yet are less likely to benefit from them,” Schuetz said.

Jed Kolko of the real estate company Trulia Inc. and Rachel Meltzer of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, also were the paper’s authors.

The research was funded by USC’s initiative for Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Public Policy Institute of California and the David A. Coulter Family Foundation.

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