Healthful and less-healthful foods and drinks from storefront and non-storefront businesses: implications for 'food deserts', 'food swamps' and food-source disparities

Sean C Lucan, Andrew R Maroko, Achint N Patel, Ilirjan Gjonbalaj, Brian Elbel, Clyde B Schechter
Public Health Nutrition 2020 March 30, : 1-12

OBJECTIVE: Conceptualisations of 'food deserts' (areas lacking healthful food/drink) and 'food swamps' (areas overwhelm by less-healthful fare) may be both inaccurate and incomplete. Our objective was to more accurately and completely characterise food/drink availability in urban areas.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional assessment of select healthful and less-healthful food/drink offerings from storefront businesses (stores, restaurants) and non-storefront businesses (street vendors).

SETTING: Two areas of New York City: the Bronx (higher-poverty, mostly minority) and the Upper East Side (UES; wealthier, predominantly white).

PARTICIPANTS: All businesses on 63 street segments in the Bronx (n 662) and on 46 street segments in the UES (n 330).

RESULTS: Greater percentages of businesses offered any, any healthful, and only less-healthful food/drink in the Bronx (42·0 %, 37·5 %, 4·4 %, respectively) than in the UES (30 %, 27·9 %, 2·1 %, respectively). Differences were driven mostly by businesses (e.g. newsstands, gyms, laundromats) not primarily focused on selling food/drink - 'other storefront businesses' (OSBs). OSBs accounted for 36·0 % of all food/drink-offering businesses in the Bronx (more numerous than restaurants or so-called 'food stores') and 18·2 % in the UES (more numerous than 'food stores'). Differences also related to street vendors in both the Bronx and the UES. If street vendors and OSBs were not captured, the missed percentages of street segments offering food/drink would be 14·5 % in the Bronx and 21·9 % in the UES.

CONCLUSIONS: Of businesses offering food/drink in communities, OSBs and street vendors can represent substantial percentages. Focusing on only 'food stores' and restaurants may miss or mischaracterise 'food deserts', 'food swamps', and food/drink-source disparities between communities.

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