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An Introduction to Food Deserts

Obesity is a growing problem within the United States, and Philadelphia is one of the hardest-hit cities nationwide. In 2000, the American Obesity Association named Philadelphia the most overweight city and continued to name Philadelphia one of the top four obese cities in the country for the next five years (American Obesity Association 2005).

Many underserved communities in Philadelphia lack access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. These underserved communities are known as “food deserts,” a term coined by Great Britain’s Nutrition Task Force in the 1990s. Research in the United States revealed that nationwide there are fewer supermarkets per capita in low-income areas than in high-income areas (Cotterill and Franklin 1995, Nayga and Weinberg 1999). Lack of vehicle ownership is a significant barrier in accessing healthy food in low-income communities (Nayga and Weinberg 1999). Small food markets and stores available in inner-city neighborhoods often offer few and largely unaffordable options for healthy produce (Nayga and Weinberg 1999).

Food deserts in Philadelphia date back as early as the 1950s. In line with a nationwide trend, from the 1950s to the 1970s, urban residents of Philadelphia moved to the suburbs. Grocery stores followed this movement, enticed by lower startup costs and higher profit margins. At the end of this suburbanization process, Philadelphia became the city with the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita in the United States.