GROCERY shopping can have a profound influence on diets and health. Supermarkets supply us with twice as many calories than all other food sources combined, including restaurants and schools. While King County’s efforts to combat obesity have singled out school meals, fast foods and vending machines, city and county leaders should improve the health of our community with aggressive development policies and incentives.
Are there food deserts in King County? The federal government defines food deserts as low-income areas where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. Such areas have been linked with nutrient-poor diets and with higher rates of obesity and other chronic illness.
Our research shows that King County is well supplied with food. There are nearly 8,000 places where people can buy food, including grocery stores, ethnic markets, restaurants, fast-food outlets and coffee shops. We geocoded their locations and charted demographics of supermarket shoppers. Our data show that few addresses in the county are more than a 10-minute drive from a big grocery store.
But what of people who do not have access to a car? More than 50 percent of King County’s carless and low-income population, about 15 percent of the county’s total population, lives beyond a 10-minute walk of a supermarket, according to our research. They live in a food desert, even in the middle of plenty. Improving access to food sources should be part of good urban design.
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The University of Washington’s Urban Form Lab and the Center for Public Health Nutrition track food-shopping patterns and describe their impact on health and weight. Our Seattle SmartMaps offer new ways to measure the food environment, area by area, and neighborhood by neighborhood. Our health atlas of King County can pinpoint specific neighborhoods with lowest access to foods, highest rates of obesity, and lowest-quality diets.
Interestingly, large institutions are stepping into the void of explicit regulations and lack of action in addressing this issue directly. At the University of Washington, for example, the first phase of a student housing project has placed 1,600 additional students on the west side of the Seattle campus. Those students will live within a block or two of the newly opened District Market. The District Market sources 50 percent of its products locally, including produce, fish and baked goods.
The Seattle Housing Authority has recently received funds from the City Council to redevelop the Yesler Terrace public housing on First Hill. The project’s more than 1,200 residents earn much less than the city’s median income, and include families with children and seniors who will be dependent on local restaurants and grocery stores. Walking access to foods needs to be assured during the planning phase, lest the new development turn into a food desert.
The same holds true for similar neighborhoods citywide and countywide, where urban planners now urgently need to add grocery stores to the parking, open space, affordable housing and other elements that make up the palette of common regulations used to sustain good neighborhoods.
The city of Chicago recently gave tax breaks to a national supermarket chain for opening a store in one of its food deserts. Likewise, developers here would probably respond positively to public-sector incentives to include grocery stores in some of their projects.
Making the grocery store the center of a community does more than promote better diets. Research shows that people living in walkable neighborhoods are physically active enough to enhance their health. Studies in King County, conducted over that past 10 years by the Urban Form Lab, indicated that when people did walk, they walked to get food.
Gone are the days of supermarkets set in a sea of parking. Urban planning policies must place grocery stores at the heart of new or revitalized developments to encourage active travel and promote better diets and health.
Anne Vernez Moudon, left, a University of Washington professor of urban design and planning, directs the Urban Form Lab. Adam Drewnowski, UW professor of epidemiology, directs the Nutritional Sciences Program.