Access to Healthy Food Choices

Desired Trend

Down

Current Trend

Up
Baseline (2010): 7.2%
Current (2015): 8.4%

Theme Efficient

Definition

Percent of total population that live in a low income census tract and reside far from a supermarket/large grocery store (more than one mile for urban areas or 10 miles for rural areas)

Why is it Important?

Healthy food is essential for well-being, but not all residents have access to healthy food. In particular, residents living in low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer grocery stores. The options they do have tend to sell food at higher prices due to higher store costs, lack of competition, and smaller store size,1 and the quality of the food sold in low-income neighborhoods tends to be lower. Access for low-income residents is important because they are less likely to own an automobile or have transportation options, which limits their access to healthy food even further.

For this indicator, “residing far from a grocery store” means the nearest grocery store is at least one mile away for households in urban census tracts and 10 miles away for households in rural census tracts. This indicator is an estimate of the number of people without access to healthy food options.2 Some of the population that is counted as not having access may have access to farmers markets or smaller grocers that are not included in the national database, while others who are counted as having access may not actually be able to access the grocery store near their home because of a barrier, such as a highway, that blocks access.3

How are we Doing?

This indicator looks at the percent of the population that resides far from a grocery store (farther than 1 mile in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas) and in a low-income census tract.4 In 2015, over 1.15 million St. Louis residents lived far from a grocery store. Of this total, 235,000 residents also lived within a low-income census tract. This constitutes 8.4 percent of the region’s population, which is an increase of 1.2 percentage points from the baseline year, about 50,000 additional people. Around 56,000, or 24.1 percent, reside within St. Louis County, 19.1 percent reside in Jefferson County and 17.5 percent resident Madison County.

Most of these residents are white (64 percent), and 31 percent are black. Throughout the region, 14.4 percent of black residents live in a low-income census tract and reside far from a grocery store compared with 7.1 percent of white residents in the region.

Compared to its peer metropolitan regions, the St. Louis MSA ranks 22nd, slightly above the peer region average of 7.4 percent, but around 4 percentage points lower than the United States as a whole. In 2015, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population lived in a low-income census tract far from a grocery store up from 11.9 percent in 2010. In the United States, 71.6 percent of low access residents are white and 16.2 are black. However, 16.7 percent of all black U.S. residents have low-access to grocery stores, compared with 14.1 percent of all white U.S. residents.

Areas where a substantial portion of the population are low-income and have low-access5 to grocery stores are often referred to as food deserts. A census tract with substantial low-access is defined as one where at least 33 percent of the population or 500 people live far from a grocery store. In 2015, 71 census tracts in the St. Louis region qualified as food deserts based on the one mile distance for urban tracts and 10 mile distance for rural tracts. Close to one-third of the census tracts in the eight county region that meet this criteria are within St. Louis County (31.0%), 19.7 percent are in St. Clair County, and 18.3 percent are in Madison County. Over 290,000 residents in the St. Louis region live in these food desert census tracts, down slightly from about 321,000 in 2010.

Although the one mile distance is often used, some consider that to be too far and instead use a distance of ½ mile in urban areas. Using the smaller radius, the number of residents living in a food desert increased from about 656,000 in 2010 to 698,000 in 2015. Using this criteria, 33.0 percent of food desert census tracts are in St. Louis County and another 30.2 percent are in the city of St. Louis.

Another consideration is a household’s access to a vehicle. Living one mile from a grocery store is not far for someone who is driving but for someone riding transit or walking, one mile is a considerable distance to travel with a load of groceries. Over 22,000 households (2.1 percent of households) in the St. Louis region do not have access to a vehicle and reside far from a grocery store (more than one mile in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas). This is similar to the percentage nationwide of 1.9 percent of households lacking access to a vehicle and residing far from a grocery store.

Geographic Level

St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). View map.

Notes

1Kaufman, Phillip R., James M. MacDonald, Steve M. Lutz, and David M. Smallwood. Do the Poor Pay More for Food?: Item Selection and Price Differences Affect Low-Income Household Food Costs. Food and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Economic Report No. 759. November 1997; accessed on 2 April 2014 at http://www.ers.usda.gov/ersDownloadHandler.ashx?file=/media/921672/aer759.pdf

Access to healthy food choices reflects grocery store and supermarket locations as of 2015. The baseline figure reflects locations as of 2010. Total population numbers, including low-income and low-access figures, are based on the 2010 Census for both the baseline year and the current year. 

3This indicator is a HUD Flagship Sustainability Indicator. The Flagship Indicators were created for the Sustainable Community Initiative in an effort to develop a common national framework for measuring long-term progress toward sustainable communities.

4Census tracts are considered low-income if they meet the criteria from the Department of Treasury’s New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) program, which includes all tracts with over 20 percent poverty and tracts that have low median family income relative to the state or metropolitan area median family income.

5Census tracts are considered low-access if at least 500 people or 33 percent of residents have low access to grocery stores, which traditionally is defined as a distance of at least one mile in urban census tracts and 10 miles in rural census tracts.

Data Sources

Food Access Research Atlas, United States Department of Agriculture