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Study: In low income 'food deserts,' the kind and size of food stores matters

Source: University of Southern California

As Michelle Obama was promoting grocery store access in Inglewood today, the University of Southern California released a report illustrating just where it is that large supermarkets are most lacking in several large metro areas, including L.A.

The report makes a distinction between chain supermarkets, which provide lower prices and a larger selection, and smaller retail food stores, which there are more of, but don't have the economy of scale to provide the best prices or freshest food. Even if there are food stores around, the kind and quality matters, according to researchers. From a USC press release:

“’Retail deserts’ is not an accurate label for many poor neighborhoods,” said Jenny Schuetz, a professor with the USC 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.”

The study mapped the grocery scarcity in two ways, taking in how many "supermarkets" (which include some smaller and medium-sized food retail stores, not necessarily large chains) there are in neighborhoods as well as taking a look at chain grocery-store employment, which indicates the presence of larger stores.

As it has been for years, it's Los Angeles' working-class black and Latino neighborhoods (some of which have become increasingly Latino in recent years) that are among the most severely lacking in grocery outlets, as seen on the supermarket map above. So are some of the San Fernando Valley's poorest Latino neighborhoods.

In a mapped stretch just east of the 110 along the 105 Freeway, which corresponds on a county map to an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County and part of Compton, the supermarket-to-1,000 resident ratio is zero to .28. In an area that corresponds to the Sun Valley-Pacoima area, the supermarket-to-1,000 resident ratio .35 to .43. And because the "supermarkets" counted aren't necessarily all large stores, these residents' food access could be worse than it appears.

The report, published in the current issue of Regional Science and Urban Economics, can be downloaded here.