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New York City Department of City Planning. 2008

Food Empowerment Project’s report, “Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight (PDF),” shows that it is possible to overlook communities that are located in food deserts when relying on data collected by the US government. We found that, “Part of the problem is how the US government’s North American Industry Classification System (NAICS is the standard used by the federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments) categorizes retail outlets that sell food. According to the NAICS code, small corner grocery stores are statistically lumped together with supermarkets, such as Safeway, Whole Foods Market, etc. In other words, a community with no supermarket and two corner grocery stores that offer liquor and food would be counted as having two retail food outlets even though the food offered may be extremely limited and consist mainly of junk food.”

In addition to this, we found that many of the convenience stores that had items such as a bunch of bananas or a few apples would sell the fruits individually. Because these items are not priced, the customers are often at the mercy of the person behind the counter who determines the cost then and there. Customers who don’t have a good understanding of English might never ask the price of the item.

Those living in food deserts may also find it difficult to locate foods that are culturally appropriate for them, and dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance, gluten allergies, etc., also limit the food choices of those who do not have access to larger chain stores that have more selection. Additionally, studies have found that urban residents who purchase groceries at small neighborhood stores pay between 3 and 37 percent more than suburbanites buying the same products at supermarkets. [4]

Healthier foods are generally more expensive than unhealthful foods, particularly in food deserts. For instance, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the US increased by nearly 75 percent between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26 percent during the same period. [5] While such inflation has strained the food budgets of many families regardless of their financial status, the higher cost of healthy foods often puts them entirely beyond the monetary means of many lower-income people.

While unhealthy eating may be economically cheaper in the short-term, the consequences of long-term constrained access to healthy foods is one of the main reasons that ethnic minority and low-income populations suffer from statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetescardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions than the general population. [