Food Deserts

An Issue of Social Justice

How to Cite

Furey, S., McIlveen, H., & Strugnell, C. (1999). Food Deserts: An Issue of Social Justice. M/C Journal, 2(7).
Vol. 2 No. 7 (1999): Food
Published 1999-10-01

In today's society there is evidence of a culture of the 'empowered consumer' -- an image of the consumer as a citizen rather than a subordinate. In fact, human rights language is increasingly coming to the fore in the consumption debate.

The consumer has been allocated rights by the United Nations whereby all human beings are born free and equal and have civil, political, economic and social rights (McGregor 44). However, as citizens we also have responsibilities of an environmental and social concern. Food retailing and equality of shopping provision is one such concern.

Food is a basic right. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and have access to safe and nutritious food. Social exclusion refers to those in the population who are unable to participate in economic, political, social and cultural life. Social exclusion is different from, but related to, poverty since it further marginalises the most disadvantaged -- for example, those who cannot access a large supermarket. In keeping with the rights/responsibilities language, the consumer has a basic right to food and the retailer has the social responsibility to supply the needs of the consumer. It is in this respect that food is an ethical issue and has social justice implications.

Inability to consume, or have access to, sufficient food of nutritional quality is a global concern. In North America the issue is one of 'food insecurity' or 'food poverty' due to inadequate finance to purchase sufficient food. In the United Kingdom the same problem arises within the context of access to food stores. This is identified as a 'food (shopping) desert', where due to restricted access social exclusion can arise.

The term 'food deserts' was first used by the Low Income Project Team of the Nutrition Task Force in 1996 and was succinctly defined by Tessa Jowell (Government Health Minister) in 1997 when she stated that a food desert was an area "where people do not have easy access to healthy, fresh foods particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility". The term 'food desert' is an emotive one referring to a unique tool of social polarisation and exclusion (Lang 5). The issues compounding the problem include low income, locational policy of supermarkets with the acquisition of edge-of-town / out-of-town sites, consumer mobility, car ownership levels and food availability.

This research study focuses on Northern Ireland -- a region of the UK on the periphery of Europe.

The Province of Northern Ireland (Ulster) is a sparsely populated (122 people per km²), predominantly rural area with the highest unemployment and poverty statistics in the United Kingdom. Similarly, Northern Ireland has a proportionately high degree of non-car ownership (35%) which further complicates the equation since shopping is increasingly becoming a car-borne activity necessitating transportation to edge-of-town superstores. Those not able to avail themselves of large edge-of-town superstores are being socially excluded, since inner-city areas are becoming denuded of food stores. Those that do exist usually have a limited range of food items, usually non-perishable, or are specialist shops stocking high priced items.

It is the aim of the study to identify the characteristics, extent and location of food deserts in both rural and urban areas of Northern Ireland. It is a particularly apt time to do so since Northern Ireland is experiencing a 'retail revolution' with the arrival of the major UK grocery multiples and subsequent situational policies to locate off-centre. Similarly, there are plans to curtail out-of-town developments which has been viewed by some smaller retailers as "too little, too late". With the above in mind, it is a timely study for Northern Ireland.

Multiple research tools of both a qualitative and a quantitative nature have been employed including consumer focus groups, shopping diaries, comparative shopping exercises, consumer questionnaires and retail interviews. This will enable sufficient validation of results.

The focus groups provide qualitative depth (Colquhoun 39) and serve to highlight the issues of shopping inequality from the point of view of different consumer groups which could be identified as potentially vulnerable in the food poverty stakes; the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed or low income families, lone-parent families and females in general; to whom falls the responsibility for provisioning the household, organising the kitchen and doing the household's cooking (Murcott 11). Basically, food is gendered -- women are mainly in charge (Vaines 13). The respondents in this study demonstrate exactly that point since 77% of the sample were female and reported that they were responsible for household shopping.

This point is particularly prevalent with regard to access to cars. In fact over 50% of women in 1991-1993 either lived in households without a car or were non-drivers in a household with a car. Similarly, although there is a rising proportion of women who work they still do most of the shopping and spend twice as much time as men provisioning the household (Piachaud & Webb 18). Ultimately, anything that affects the purchaser also affects the purchasing experience -- in this case physical access to the foodstore.

Comparative shopping exercises illustrate the availability and price indices of food and reiterate the price differences between the smaller independents, the local corner shops and the supermarkets. Initial research using the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's "Low Cost, Healthy Diet" (Leather 75) provides evidence of a cost differential of £1.41, or a 26% cost penalty by shopping at a corner store rather than a superstore. Availability among corner shops similarly compared unfavourably with the supermarkets, with the smallest stores offering minimal fresh fruit and vegetables and regularly offering no 'economy' branded equivalent to an established manufacturer's brand. This supports previous research which found that in areas where small shops do exist they offer only a limited overpriced range of processed foods (Elliott 5), and it is generally accepted that those who can shop at supermarkets can generally benefit from lower prices and more choice (Piachaud & Webb 32). The benefits of supermarkets are not therefore available to all.

Shopping diaries further illustrate this point with the dichotomy existing where the lower-income consumer shops more frequently and locally than does her higher-income counterpart and it is these same consumers who patronise the smaller, often more expensive corner shop.

Many consumers like the convenience of large supermarkets where they have access to a vast range of items and do not mind paying premium prices on some items for this convenience. Supermarkets do not offer low prices on all items, but do stock economy lines as well as premium priced items.

The consumer questionnaire provides some quantitative analysis and statistical weight to the data and was analysed using the χ-square test on SPSS for Windows Version 8. With the χ-square test the important detail is the significance level (reported as a p-value). A p-value of less than 0.05 indicates that the two groups are significantly different at a confidence level of 95% -- in other words, it can be concluded that the author is 95% certain that the result is statistically significant and free from error. Four areas of the Province were sampled -- two rural and two urban. The sample was 77% female and the median age group fell between 45 to 54 years. The social class status was skewed towards the lower socio-economic classes and only 12% fell into social classes A or B. The mean household income was £151 to £200 per week. The survey was interviewer-assisted and pointed to some interesting correlations between levels of satisfaction with store location and distance travelled, product choice and the decision to continue shopping in the town centre.

Thirty percent of the sample stated that they shop at off-centre complexes and 70% of the sampled households shop in the town centre or closer to home. This sample also provides evidence that shopping is largely a car-borne activity with 58% of the sample using the family car.

Journey distance is significantly influenced by degree of satisfaction with locality: p<0.01 and is supported with the evidence that 64% of the respondents stated that they shop less than fifteen minutes from home.

Similar relationships exist between reported satisfaction with locality and differing degrees of satisfaction for product choice: p<0.01.

A significant bias similarly exists between those who continue to shop in the town centre after the advent of the UK multiples into Northern Ireland in 1996 and those who do not: p<0.05 with a bias

towards those continuing to shop in the town centre reporting high satisfaction levels. Ultimately, perceived adequacy of shopping provision influences satisfaction with store locality: p<0.05.

Although the majority of respondents' weekly shopping is conducted at a multiple there is still an identified need for the local corner shops and independents since approximately 29% of respondents buy essentials like bread, milk and other basic grocery provision there. In fact, 98% of those surveyed reported that every town centre should have a food store, and 82% noticed a reduction in the number of food stores locally in recent years.

In a concluding open question in the survey attitudes towards off-centre supermarkets were gauged. Responses ranged from positive in nature ("better parking facilities") to indifferent ("I never bother with them") to negative ("they [out-of-town supermarkets] only suit people with cars" and "they hurt the small shopkeeper").

From a retail management point of view, the multiple stores perceive (or want the consumer to believe) that they have a "social responsibility" but suggest that it should be a coalition between retailers and councillors to rejuvenate the town centres and it is not their sole responsibility.

The corner shops argue their business position has survived but allude to the fact that the migration to out-of-town sites by the supermarkets has "created a void in the town centre".

The issue is complex. While it is true that the multiples have brought shoppers a number of benefits -- price, choice and quality -- they have also both directly (siting shops outside town centres and in high income areas) and indirectly (undermining the economies of small, local outlets) increased costs on disadvantaged consumers in terms of time, physical effort and transport. This has led to a degree of social exclusion amongst certain consumer groups, although this was not quantitatively expressed as significant via the medium of the questionnaire in this preliminary study.

It should be remembered that food and mealtimes are imbued with social and cultural meaning (Lang 27) and that "food is a vehicle for social control" (7). In fact food desertification has been likened to the "food equivalent of disconnecting the water supply" (27) and initiatives should be considered to alleviate food poverty and rejuvenate town centres throughout the Province. A multidisciplinary approach is necessary with input from retailers, councillors, health promotion personnel and education bodies to bring about a policy to eradicate this form of social exclusion and disadvantage.

Author Biographies

Sinead Furey


Heather McIlveen


Christopher Strugnell