In the U.S., a Quick Walk to the Store Is a Rare Thing Indeed

Very few American cities offer residents the easiest way to grab healthy food fast. 

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AP

You’re cooking dinner. You realize you’re missing a key ingredient – garlic for the pasta, let’s say, or lettuce for your salad. Something without which you can’t get the meal on the table. How long would it take you to walk to a store where you can buy it?

For 72 percent of New Yorkers, the answer is less than five minutes. But in Indianapolis – or Oklahoma City or Wichita – only 5 percent of residents have a store selling fresh produce within that distance.

Those numbers come from a recent analysis by Walk Score, the app and website that has gained traction over the past few years as one of the most accessible measures of how easy it is to get around any particular city or neighborhood on foot. Using data from its extensive database, Walk Score ranked the 50 largest U.S. cities to see how they did on access to decent food, using stores that sell fresh produce as a benchmark.

Walk Score chose the ambitious five-minute mark based on a goal set by the city of Washington, D.C. in its 20-year Sustainable D.C. plan [PDF]: to have 75 percent of its population living within a quarter mile of a place where they can buy healthy food.

Walk Score frames its blog post on the ranking with the somewhat simplistic headline “Do You Live in a Food Desert?” The concept of “food deserts” – places, usually in inner cities, where residents don’t have good places to buy healthy food and thus are at increased risk for obesity -- has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, although there has also been some pushback from researchers who say that the problem has been overstated. (And pushback to the pushback.) The USDA has its own measure of what constitutes a food desert, and its own map that takes numerous variables into account, including population density and vehicle ownership.

So the Walk Score ranking is a blunt instrument. But what it shows, in its blunt way, is a remarkable gulf in the way American cities are constructed. In the list of 50 cities (which I obtained in spreadsheet form from Walk Score), only New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have more than 50 percent of residents within the magic five-minute walk to the store. Oakland and Miami, both with 49 percent, round out the top five, with Boston (45) close behind, and Washington D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, and Long Beach all at 41 percent.

Then things rapidly go downhill. After you pass Seattle, ranked 13th with just 31 percent access, no other city in the U.S. cracks 30 percent, and the bottom 22 cities of the U.S. top 50 by population all have 10 percent or fewer residents within a five-minute walk to the store.

The numbers paint a picture of a dramatically divided nation, one in which even residents of the nation’s largest cities rarely have quick access via active transportation to the ingredients for fresh and healthy meals.

It’s just one more way of measuring how development defines our lives and our choices in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.