UC Researchers Could Redefine Location of Food Deserts

Paper looks into commuting patterns, mobility to identify access to food

click to enlarge Michael Widener at Madison's, Findlay Market, in Over-the-Rhine.
Michael Widener at Madison's, Findlay Market, in Over-the-Rhine.

Food deserts are a big problem for many of Hamilton County’s impoverished families, but ongoing research suggests officials may be overlooking mobility when attempting to pinpoint neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods.

University of Cincinnati professor Michael Widener is heading research that looks into how mobility can alter perceptions about food deserts. So far, his findings have suggested that some people may have access to healthy foods throughout their daily commute despite being classified as living in a food desert.

Widener explains the research is necessary to make identifying food deserts more accurate. “In previous work and when I was doing my dissertation, I was noticing how a lot of food desert research failed to take into account the dynamics of everyday urban life,” he says. The observation led Widener to incorporate those dynamics, particularly people’s movements throughout the day, to see how they impact people’s access to food.

Still, Widener cautions that his findings don’t dismiss the problems caused by food deserts: “Of course, there are a lot of assumptions being made, like are (these commuters) totally drained after work? The biggest (assumption) is of course that (someone has) a car.”

Widener says his findings could impact how public officials approach food desert policies. He points to potential stopgap measures, such as better access to public transportation, that could alleviate the pains of living in a food desert while a more permanent solution is put in place. Widener argues these policies could make financial sense: Considering how many potential costs a food desert can bring on a community, it might be cheaper for a city to build a bus route and encourage better ways to load groceries into buses. Widener knows these aren’t perfect solutions, but he thinks they could provide some aid in a bogged-down political climate that often results in sluggish policy changes.

There is a caveat: Widener acknowledges research has so far been inconsistent as to whether access to healthier food actually leads to healthier results. Eventually, he wants to research what actually causes healthier results and whether broader economic factors, such as poverty, play a more important role. That could give officials a clearer picture on which policies work and which don’t.

The first part of Widener’s research came out in a January paper that looked at auto commuters’ access to food, and the next part will look at public transportation’s impact. The research project is using local transportation data from The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

Food deserts are neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy foods. In Hamilton County, many of the identified food deserts are in neighborhoods on the city’s west side, including Price Hill and Queensgate. Cincinnati’s food deserts are just one problem being addressed by Plan Cincinnati, the city’s first master plan in more than 20 years (

“Core Future,”

issue of Sept. 5).

Part of the parking plan proposed by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. on Feb. 19 (

“City Manager Proposes Parking, Economic Development Plan,”

issue of Feb. 20) would also build a modern grocery store with access to fresh fruits and vegetables in Downtown.
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