disparities in neighborhood food environments: implications of measurement strategies

Public health researchers have begun to map the neighborhood “food environment” and examine its association with the risk of overweight and obesity. Some argue that “food deserts” – areas with little or no provision of fresh produce and other healthy food – may contribute to disparities in obesity, diabetes, and related health problems. While research on neighborhood food environments has taken advantage of more technically sophisticated ways to assess distance and density, in general it has not considered how individual or neighborhood conditions might modify physical distance and thereby affect patterns of spatial accessibility. This study carried out a series of sensitivity analyses to illustrate the effects on food environment disparities measures of adjusting for cross-neighborhood variation in vehicle ownership rates, public transit access, and impediments to pedestrian travel such as crime and poor traffic safety. The analysis used GIS data for New York City supermarkets, fruit and vegetable markets, and farmers’ markets, and employed both kernel density and distance measures. We found that adjusting for vehicle ownership and crime tended to increase measured disparities in access to supermarkets by neighborhood race/ethnicity and income, but adjusting for public transit and traffic safety tended to narrow these disparities. Further, considering fruit and vegetable markets and farmers’ markets as well as supermarkets increased healthy food outlet density especially in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Hispanics, Asians, and foreign-born residents, and in high-poverty neighborhoods.

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