What the USDA’s New Food Desert Locator Means to NYC


In an effort to acknowledge struggling communities around the country, the USDA has launched its new food desert locator. For the purposes of this interactive map, food deserts have been defined as “low-income census tracts where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

So, how does our fair city fare?

As it turns out, the food deserts that have been identified in areas like the South Bronx and East Harlem are nowhere to be found on the USDA’s map. In fact, the only deserts in the city appear to be near JFK airport. Whether it’s a result of efforts like the fresh produce carts that have cropped up in underserved areas or simply that the neighborhoods don’t rate as deserts according to the USDA’s standards is unclear.

Economist Shelly Ver Ploeg, who headed up the locator project with Vince Breneman, says that identifying food deserts is never all that simple.

“Food deserts have been defined a number of ways by different organizations. … I think the main reason why there are few census tracts in NYC and specifically the Bronx is because there are just not that many people in those census tracts that are more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” explained Ver Ploeg via e-mail. “This is one of the methodological issues that makes it hard to define something like a food desert across a very diversely populated — and here I mean geographically diverse — nation like the U.S.”

In other words, if it’s hard to identify food deserts across the country using nothing more than algorithms, then within New York City, where “grocery store” can mean “corner deli” and “mile” can mean “two trains and a bus ride,” it’s virtually impossible.