A food desert is a neighborhood without access to healthy food.  Why does this matter? Living in a food desert can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease1.

Walk Score helps you make more informed decisions about where to live, like finding an apartment within walking distance of a grocery store.

Many cities are making access to healthy food part of their general plans.  For example, Washington D.C.’s sustainability plan sets a goal of having 75% of residents within a 5 minute walk of healthy food.

But how many people can walk to a grocery store in 5 minutes?

Today, we’re announcing a new ranking of the best and worst U.S. cities for access to food based on our database of local places and our Travel Time API and ChoiceMaps technology.

The Best Cities for Food Access

Our ranking measures access to healthy food by calculating the percent of people in a city who can walk to a grocery store in 5 minutes.  The ranking below includes U.S. cities with more than 500,000 residents.

The best cities for access to healthy food are:

Rank City People with Food Access (5 min walk)
1 New York 72%
2 San Francisco 59%
3 Philadelphia 57%
4 Boston 45%
5 Washington D.C. 41%
The best and worst cities for food access.

The best and worst large cities for food access.
Areas in green indicate where you can walk to a grocery store in 5 mins.

The Worst Cities for Food Access

The following cities have the lowest percentage of people who can walk to a grocery store within 5 minutes:

Rank City People with Food Access (5 min walk)
1 Indianapolis 5%
2 Oklahoma City 5%
3 Charlotte 6%
4 Tucscon 6%
5 Albuquerque 7%

Don’t See Your City? Urban planners and researchers, please contact us to unlock your city.

Methodology

To calculate the percent of residents in a city with access to healthy food we use a variety of data sources and technologies.  Our population data and city boundaries come from the U.S. Census. Our list of grocery stores comes from a mix of Google, Localeze, and places added via the Walk Score website. We calculated millions of walking routes for this ranking with our Travel Time API.

Our goal is to only include grocery stores that sell produce.  We filter out convenience stores with a combination of algorithmic filters and crowdsourcing.  That said, it’s harder than it sounds to get a clean list of grocery stores.  If you see a convenience store miscategorized as a grocery store, please click the “Edit place” link and help us improve our data quality.

Our rankings are proximity based and do not include the cost of food.  Some studies have shown that shoppers select supermarkets based on price as well as proximity2.  For example, people with lower incomes may travel farther to shop at a cheaper grocery store.

Unlike other food desert maps, our maps are dynamic and updated in real-time as our database of underlying grocery stores changes.

Walk Score Data for Your City, County or State 

Walk Score data is being used by a growing number of cities and planning districts.  “The City of San Jose is using Walk Score data to start tracking performance metrics for our general plan such as how many people can walk to fresh food and parks,” said Joseph Horwedel, Deputy City Manager of San Jose.

Walk Score offers data in spreadsheet or shapefile format for every address in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.  We have also aggregated our data for every city and ZIP code in the U.S.

Planners, researchers, and analysts are using Walk Score in a variety of ways:

Contact us to learn more about using Walk Score data in your research and analysis and watch this video to learn more about Walk Score ChoiceMaps:

17 Comments

  1. John

    What is the cause of these food deserts?

    It seems that with so much demand, companies would be eager to open food stores where people could walk to them or take transit to them?

    Have you analyzed parking requirements? Wouldn’t the minimum parking requirements preclude the establishment of small scale food stores in neighborhoods (for example, ALDI or Save-a-Lot)?

    Could you include parking policies somehow in your analysis? It might reveal a bit more why there are “food deserts” where there is obviously so much demand for food.

  2. Jason

    John, there are quite a few reasons why these areas crop up, yet one of the biggest reasons given is the perceived and actual risks of opening such stores in low income areas. That said, I do believe this service here is a huge step in the right direction, because it is not a concept many people are even aware of, so the more outlets for the dissemination of food desert information, the better.

  3. Greg

    John,
    I think that “food deserts”, as described here, don’t occur by themselves. In a city with low walkability, it’s very inconvenient to get by without a car. In a city where you need to drive to get to work, school, medical facilities and so on, most everyone will own a car. If they own a car, they’ll probably drive further to the MegaMart for low prices instead of paying more to shop in a corner store. So corner stores don’t flourish.
    I would bet that the percentages in the tables above are inversely proportional to the percentages of people who own cars.

  4. Jessica

    I chose my apartment based on many reasons, and the grocery store is one of them. Okay, it wasn’t actually a huge deciding factor, but it is now the single best thing about my apartment.

    Not only is the grocery store within walking distance, we practically share a parking lot.
    It has been such a wonderful blessing to be able to run out for that last ingredient for dinner, or if I’ve got a sugar craving, or even when we had the ice storm, I could easily stock up on food.

    I walk there every few days.

    If/when I move, it will be hard to give up the best next door neighbor grocery store!

  5. I’m interested in where the 5 minute walk time metric comes from? It seems very low. We’re a car-free household and our grocery store is 10 minutes walk away up a steep hill – and that feels like close walking distance to us.

  6. Dennis

    Why five minutes? That actually seems a bit low to me (though it does make the NYC number that much more impressive). Ten minutes would seem more reasonable, no? Or is five an accepted standard?

  7. RSR

    I’d be interested to see NYC broken down and compared by borough. It’s easy to see that Staten Island, especially its ‘South Shore’ is vastly different than the rest of the city. Queens looks like it has some pockets of missing coverage, but that may be open space and recreational areas.

  8. I agree with Dennis: the benchmark distance (5 mins) is too low. I live 7 minutes from a good-sized grocery store and visit it every day (walking translates into not buying so much during each visit). A short distance also translates into less “overhead” (overall travel time and effort) and therefore the likelihood that the trip will be made more frequently.

    Also, some stores are very large, and on an even larger piece of land. The store I use is on a small piece of land, sitting on top of a two-level parking lot that exceeds the store’s demand and thus charges non-patrons (patrons get their tickets stamped).

    Just a short distance away from me — within biking distance of our downtown home in Ottawa — are two grocery stores on the suburban model: set back from the road with surface parking in front. They are less walkable for those living nearby because of that parking lot and the lack of any separate walkway for those on foot (which includes those coming by transit, of course). Despite being in an older part of town, both stores were build within the last 10 years.

    We also need to look at the siting of the store to determine its walkability, not to mention whether parking is free. Site-plan approval processes need to be examined.

  9. Jeff

    I wonder if the access part of the definition need to be refined. I know very few people in Madison, WI who walk to get groceries.

    My nearest good food sources by foot are 12 minutes (Whole Foods), 15 minuts (Regent Market Co-op), and 20 minutes (a very large grocery in a modest shopping mall).

    Yet, these are all 5 to 7 minutes by bicycle, which is my primary transport for shoppping for groceries, hardware and much more.

    So, while I live by the study’s definition in a Food Desert, I feel as though I am awash in a food Tsunami.

  10. Vanessa

    I remember the corner store growing up in the 60’s. My mother sending us to the store for one onion or a few potatoes, fruit, vegetables, milk, anything you needed from day to day. And I can remember when they began disappearing. These were mom and pop businesses and in many cases they owned the property and lived upstairs or in the neighborhood. They had a vested interest in the community because they were part of it. They were our neighbors.

    Like the small farmers they were squeezed out. When they passed away no one stepped in to fill the void. Our neighborhoods became deserts in more ways than one.

    I grew up in Chicago and now live in Green Bay WI. Not exactly an urban center. Very little is convenient here. It’s a city that is more like a suburb. Rather dull and uninteresting.

    But where I live there is an Aldi’s at the other end of the block (not exactly the corner store but it’ll do) It was one of the deciding factors for me when I needed to move a few years ago to another neighborhood; along with public transit stops, a shopping plaza nearby and a few banks in walking distance.

    Walkability should include – a viable public transit system (public transit here has changed little in 20 years. Improving but really does not have much understanding of their ridership. People have moved here from urban centers like me) bicycle paths, sidewalks and access to taxis without having to call them to come pick you up. I use taxis to haul things home because I don’t own a car any longer. They are priceless during rough Wisconsin winters as well.

    Great piece by the way. Got here from @Atlantic Cities link on Twitter.

  11. Regarding the five minute parameter – I think some of the commenters are missing that food deserts typically have the greatest impact on underserved and vulnerable populations. Yes, for all of us, it is a nice convenience to have options of getting healthy food within walking distance, but for some groups, stores and restaurants within a five minute walk may be the only way they can easily provide food for themselves or their families.

    A five minute walk may not seem very far if you are able bodied, have reliable child care, a schedule that allowed for frequent trips, safe streets to walk on, etc., but imagine if you were sick, elderly, a mother with very small children, a single parent who was also the primary source of income, etc.

    All that to say, access to healthy, safe, affordable food isn’t just determined by number of minutes it takes to walk to the store and back, but access isn’t the only factor in promoting healthy eating. I’m guessing that 5-min parameter is used as a measure for what an average person can and will travel to a grocery store if there are more convenient options closer by. Convenient healthy food options shouldn’t just be a luxury for people who live in well planned neighborhoods.

  12. Awesome post! Agreed that being close to food is an advantage for tenants and owners alike. Although it’s difficult to sustain when looking at the outskirts of cities.

  13. Suzan Hampton

    Insightful post-thanks! I was lucky to live a few blocks from two grocery stores during grad school in the food desert of Albuquerque: what we called “Ghetto Smith’s” and “The 3 Habibs”. Smith’s was the student ghetto branch of a chain of bland supermarkets but had really friendly checkers and cheap beer. The Habibs was a great Middle Eastern market with low prices and welcoming atmosphere. Being a high-crime area with poor street lighting, I didn’t feel safe walking over after dark, and drove to non-neighborhood stores for weeks after a gunman took hostages in a police standoff across from Smith’s. Points being a) neighborhood stores added a very positive, community feeling to my daily life and b) for walking to stores to be successful, the route has to feel safe.

  14. Pat B

    I live in Winthrop, MA where there is one small grocery store but it does not have everything that I want and is expensive. I therefore shop on my way into work in an area where there is a Trader Joe and a Whole Foods. I carry groceries in a backpack along with shopping bags on buses and subways. Sometimes I use a shopping cart which I have bumped up and down subway steps. Lugging food home is tough but well worth it. I don’t see the need for a grocery store 5 minutes away when there is public transportation.

  15. This is really an amazing new development. Newer generations are looking for alternative foods and good foods. This is a very welcome addition.

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  1. A New Measure of Food Deserts | Sightline Daily
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