How the Affordability Crisis Is Changing the Way We Think About Food Deserts

Adding a supermarket to the neighborhood may not be enough to improve access to healthy foods.

In recent years, growing public and private efforts have emerged to end the phenomenon of “food deserts,” places with limited access to restaurants and grocery stores with fresh food options. Research has shown that across the nation low-income people and people of color often have to travel farther to access supermarkets.  But distance is not the whole story when it comes to connecting people with healthy food.

In a recent Mother Jones article, “The Depressing Truth About Hipster Food Towns”, Stephen Tucker Paulsen shares the story of native Brooklynite that lives in a “food mirage,” a term being used more frequently to describe the phenomenon of living in an area dominated by food options that one cannot afford.

Pauslen writes, “Deborah Gilfillan lives between Brooklyn’s first Trader Joe’s and its flagship Whole Foods. She’s also walking distance from Union Market, a local grocery chain where flank steak sells for $15.99 per pound. But these stores are too expensive and don’t have the right ingredients for the 62-year-old contract administrator, a native Brooklynite who lives in a brownstone she bought for a song back in the 1960s.”

While food deserts have not disappeared in the New York region, so-called food mirages are becoming more and more common, especially amidst rapid neighborhood change. Many of the region’s urban areas with the highest density of supermarkets also have high shares of households receiving food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  What’s more, about 60% of the households receiving SNAP benefits are living in areas facing displacement pressures, which means that they are likely facing rising unaffordability.

The map above shows the census tracts in the New York region with rising unaffordability and risk of housing displacement, and the places where that risk is coupled with a high share (30% or more) households receiving SNAP benefits.

Areas of the region experiencing gentrification are also seeing the displacement of diverse and affordable food options. Paulsen details how assistance is not necessarily a sufficient solution, since SNAP benefits ignore the price of local foods and are instead based on nationwide average costs.

To learn more about the housing displacement and unaffordability that is growing in our region, and how to protect vulnerable residents moving forward, read the RPA’s recently published Report “Pushed Out”.  Be sure to look for our regional recommendations for food access in the fourth regional plan, “A Region Transformed”, to be released this fall.

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