A New Measure of Food Deserts

Seattle and Portland trail Vancouver in car-free access to healthy food.

The concept of a “food desert“—a place where residents have little access to healthy, affordable food—can seem somewhat alien to the well-off. If you’ve got your own car, living close to a grocery store just doesn’t matter much: you can always drive a bit and stock up with a big load of groceries! But if you don’t have a car, fresh, healthy food is often simply out of reach. Taking a cab to the store is expensive; walking or transit can take too much time, or simply be too much of a hassle. So for many car-free folks living in food deserts, the only real options are processed foods from convenience stores, or else fast food meals—typically, the sort of inexpensive, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that contribute to North America’s obesity epidemic.

But even though there’s an emerging understanding that food deserts are a significant public health concern, there’s little academic consensus on how to define and identify them…which can make it hard for policymakers to even find food deserts, let alone decide what sorts of policies might help fight them.

Enter Walk Score. They’ve constructed a new tool that offers basic maps of food deserts: places where residents can’t get to a full-service grocery store within a 5 minute walk. The tool could make a huge contribution to the healthy food movement, since it gives everyone—policymakers, activists, and ordinary citizens alike—a simple measure and a starting point for a discussion about food access.

Just as important, Walk Score’s tools introduce a bit of healthy competition into the food desert discussion.  Take a look, for example, at the three largest cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia big city food deserts


As the maps show, Vancouver, BC is the region’s clear leader in food access: a clear majority of Vancouverites live within a 5 minute walk of a grocery store. By contrast, in both Seattle and Portland, the figure is between a quarter and a third. But Vancouver, BC, isn’t just a regional standout: if the city were in the US, it would rank #4 for food access in the country, trailing only New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

But while Portland and Seattle both trail Vancouver, they’re well ahead of America’s food desert laggards. In Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, by Walk Score’s reckoning, only one resident out of twenty lives within easy walking distance of a grocery store.

Of course, measuring food deserts is just the first step. The real point is to do something about them. Still, it’s a vital first step: if you don’t measure food deserts, policymakers will have no idea where to focus their attention, and no inkling of whether the steps they’re taking are doing any good. As they say, “what gets measured gets fixed.”

Here’s hoping that this is one problem where better measurement can lead to better policy.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!



  1. RobLL says:

    How was 5 minutes chosen? That may be a little too rigorous. One stop light could use up much of that time. I think something from 8-10 minutes might be better. Alternately a distance could be chosen, which I suggest be half a mile, and no unfriendly street crossings. There are some collapsible, really light weight and user friendly two wheel grocery carts available.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I think that’s a reasonable point! For a lot of people, a 5 minute walk with a few big bags of groceries is about the limit. For others, 5 minutes is not a big deal. That’s why there’s so much academic debate about what a “food desert” really means.

      But the nifty thing about Walk Score’s “Choice Maps” tool is that it actually lets users select a walking time that makes sense for their purposes. That could let policymakers hone in on the places with really long walks to grocery stores.

      Just for the record: I think that a 5 minute walk to a grocery store is a perfectly fine benchmark for comparing different cities. But it’s certainly not the be-all-end-all definition of what constitutes a food desert.

      • Tom says:

        The 5-min benchmark came from a Washington DC goal. Not a very representative land use pattern for the rest of the US. It is all a function of density. Totally unreasonable expectation. No surprise that Vancouver is denser than Seattle or Portland. I think the 10 min walk is a much more reasonable standard, which will be difficult to meet for a majority of households because cities just are not that dense. Don’t you remember all the grandmas with their rolly baskets – people dont have to carry bags. Its funny how the definition of food deserts is constantly being redefined, mostly narrowed, to create this impossible standard that the private markets can’t or will not meet. Most grocery chains want to be 3 miles apart and/or serve 7,000 households. Even small stores need a decent customer base to survive. It would be interesting to see more market research on what the market area or disposal income needed to support a small-to-mid size store.

      • John Newcomb says:

        Vancouver’s food accessibility coverage appears rather more agglomerated, with Seattle and Portland’s coverage seemingly more atomized or dispersed. So given that doubling radius increases area by four times, going to 10 minute range might more significantly increase the American cities’ green areas than it would for Vancouver.

  2. Tritium says:

    I agree that 5 minutes feels like an unnecessarily tight standard to meet. It takes me a little more than 5 minutes to walk to Safeway from where I live in downtown Portland, and I’ve always thought of it as an amazingly short distance. But I guess my building would be classified as a food desert by this metric?

  3. Matt says:

    In Eugene we have done some similar mapping of food deserts. There are several food deserts and many of them with dense populations of people. A significant challenge of addressing them comes from the fact that the modern grocery store model is to build fewer, larger grocery stores, not a higher number of smaller stores (that could be more dispersed). Consolidation is at the core – and breaking that economic model will require more than adjusting municipal policies or providing small incentives. Yes, there are small “European” style grocers of 10,000 sq ft. or less, but they are the exception and in most communities, they struggle to survive. Lane Coalition For Healthy Active Youth has done some work to address food deserts by collaborating with local farmers and a locally-owned convenience store chain to begin siting farmer’s produce stands at convenience stores during the summer months. This is one of the more promising solutions I have seen but it’s extremely challenging to implement. As always, thanks for adding information and stirring the discussion, Clark.

  4. Elaine Livengood says:

    If the income levels of people walking to the grocery store by necessity are taken into account, the smaller size stores would not be such a good thing in the poorer areas. Small “boutique” food stores wouldn’t really help all that much for the people trying to make Food Stamps (EBT cards) stretch through the month. Good, cheap fresh fruits and vegetable outlets would be ideal; reasonably priced Farmers Markets offering local foods, for instance. But I haven’t seen too many of these lately. Prices tend to be too high for low income folks.

  5. yvrlutyens says:

    Another problem with the food desert concept is that it depends on access to only full service grocery stores. There is no reason to omit things like local grocers which are common all over the city and generally sell healthy food. Actually, if you follow the idea that you should shop around the outer walls of the grocery store – produce, juice, dairy, meat, bakery – and stay away from the aisles – the chips, pop, cookies, crackers and everything else with fat, sugar and salt – local stores cover off the outer circuit quite well except probably for meat, as local butchers are not that common. And if you want that unhealthy stuff, the ubiquitous north american drug store, which have large sections of packaged food items. Actually what the food desert maps often show is different retail operations between dense, expensive urban areas and cheaper land suburban areas that are more conducive to large format stores.

    Now it is true that downtown Vancouver, where I live is probably one of the better supplied central areas that I have seen. Actually downtown Vancouver is much easier to shop in than Manhatten because, in addition to all the local grocers, bakers, butchers etc, there are 10 actual full service grocery stores on the downtown penisula. They are smaller than the Superstore formats, but they carry everything you need. And if you want to go to Superstore, there are two stores right next to Skytrain stations not that far from downtown.

    • yvrlutyens says:

      Oops, noticing that I am repeating points made above. Although, in response to them, of the full service grocery stores in downtown, six of them are newish, so they are still getting built, and many of the smaller formats seem to be very healthy.

    • yvrlutyens says:

      And I forgot Capers and T&T, so 12 grocery stores downtown. (Although Capers is small and expensive.)

  6. Jeremy says:

    From my apartment in Seattle, the closest food (a convenience store) is 2-3 minutes away, though without proactive sewer fording (“jaywalking” as carists term it) that might be as high as 4-5 minutes waiting for the pedestrian-hostile beg button to perhaps grant a green.

    A somewhat healthier option (though mostly not organic, and otherwise pretty grim as far as selection and quality) is 11 minutes one-way, again with proactive sewer fording, plus a hill climb on the way back.

    Organic and decent selection thanks to two new grocery stores are ~25 to ~30 minutes away, though are expensive. The only viable farmer’s market is once a week, and a ~40 minute walk, and is also expensive. Anything else mandates a bicycle, or a massive hill climb, or both. Of course, this is only viable due to an Information Technology salary that I can burn off on rent and food, and besides books, close to zero spending elsewhere in the economy.

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>