Monday, January 25, 2016

Quantifying the Extent of Food Deserts in Lawrence, Kansas, USA

In an ever-developing country, it seems counterintuitive that food deserts are becoming more of a problem. But unlike its name, which implies images of an arid climate and an empty landscape, a food desert refers to the availability of food within a 500meter radius of a certain location, such as a home or a school, whether in a large city or a small town. When trying to determine whether a food desert is present or not, it is important to take into consideration several influential factors, such as public transportation, quality of food, and culture surrounding food in the area.  In an effort to better understand food deserts and to challenge the implications of a food desert, authors Lucius Hallett and Dave McDermott conducted a project in Lawrence, Kansas.
Within the study, the intent was to identify if there a relationship between lower socioeconomic status households and food deserts, and more importantly, why. To conduct this project, a survey is sent out to 1,000 random households in four different zip codes in Lawrence asking questions about transportation, socioeconomic status, distance to grocery store, and preference of available food in the store. From the 673 responses, they conclude that: it depends. Food deserts are not within strict boundaries and the concept becomes more fluid when a wider variety of factors are taken into consideration. But this study concludes that food deserts are most likely to affect individuals without any means of transportation, such as the bus, a friend, or a car of their own, who must walk to purchase food. With this conclusion, food deserts could exist for some that in the same area does not for others.

To find their result, Hallett and McDermott look at several factors that promote food deserts. The first and biggest is transportation. Through the survey responses, the households without any personal transportation are identified and then compared to public transportation routes. The second factor is quality and availability of food. The study identifies stores that meet a set standard of a footprint of at least 30,000 square feet, including specialty stores and cultural food outlets. Overlaying the map of transportation and the locations of the store, potential food deserts can then be identified.  The results of the survey question that identify lower socio-economic households prove, at least for Lawrence, that food deserts are less affected by lower income than they are urban development. The food deserts of Lawrence, Kansas are in areas of the city that have been fully developed since the early 1900s, before the demand for a high-volume grocery store existed. Because chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target also use traffic routes and patterns to determine locations, neighborhoods, such as the one in Lawrence, typically don’t have multiple-lane or high-speed highways through the middle that are would be conducive to large business grocery stores.
Food deserts are a phenomenon that can occur anywhere, especially as development continues to grow. When identifying the presence of a food desert, it is important to be mindful of the many factors that contribute, and remember how it affects different populations to different extents. Studies such as this one make it easier to pinpoint and begin to correct the reasons for lack of food.

I have acted with honesty and integrity in producing this work and am unaware of anyone who has not. Mattie Cryer

Hallett, L. F., & McDermott, D. (2011). Quantifying the extent and cost of food deserts in Lawrence, Kansas, USA. Applied Geography31(4), 1210-1215.


  1. This is very interesting because whenever I hear of food deserts, I think of low income and low transportation, not how development has caused food deserts. Does the article discuss any type of methods to solve this problem where food deserts are related to the increase of development?

  2. Since transportation is the biggest factor impacting food deserts, I wonder which kinds of public transportation (bus, light rail, etc.) "break up" food deserts most effectively? Should cities consider this when planning new transit?

  3. Perhaps this study points out the question: what is considered a food desert? If there is only a few families that it effects in a particular area (zip code, region, city, whatever), should it still be considered a food desert?