Place  /  Digital History

From Food Deserts to Supermarket Redlining

Connecting the dots between discriminatory housing policies in the 1930s and urban food insecurity today.
Jerry Shannon/Atlanta Studies

In urban areas such as Atlanta, food deserts are defined as census tracts where a significant part of the population is a mile or more from the nearest supermarket, as these are assumed to provide the best and most affordable access to healthy foods. A number of policy solutions have been proposed to address the potentially negative health impacts for those living in food deserts, most notably the federally funded Healthy Food Financing Initiative. This program, as well as others like it at the state or municipal levels, support the creation of new food outlets through tax incentives or grant funding. In Georgia, for example, one loan funded the creation of a neighborhood grocery in College Park.1

But the results from these efforts have been mixed. Some researchers have found that new supermarkets have only a modest effect on residents’ dietary behaviors,2 and others have questioned whether direct income supports for low-income individuals wouldn’t ultimately be a more effective policy solution than tax credits for developers.3

Rather than using the ecological metaphor of food deserts, some scholars have used the term supermarket redlining.4 Redlining refers to discriminatory practices in the housing industry dating to the 1930s. During this time, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps of many major urban centers that showed the lending risk in specific neighborhoods. Areas with an “A” grade were excellent candidates for home loans. At the other end of the scale, areas with a “D” grade – usually marked in red – were considered poor risks.

“Redlined” areas were often determined based on a high rate of African American residents. In a previous post in Atlanta Studies, Jason Rhodes provided a fuller explanation of how HOLC maps impacted Atlanta specifically,5 and the University of Richmond also has an excellent resource for viewing HOLC maps in most major urban areas.6 These maps, and the logic that undergirded them, had a significant effect on mortgage lending throughout the twentieth century, and even to the present day.7 As a result, African Americans were systematically denied home mortgages during the largest housing boom in the nation’s history. Combined with other practices such as housing covenants, restrictive zoning, and urban renewal, redlining contributed to the flight of affluent, white homeowners to booming suburban communities.

Supermarket redlining as a term, then, resists framing disparities in access to healthy foods as just a side effect of an otherwise functional market or some “natural” urban ecology, as a bug in the system so to speak. Rather it highlights how the locational decisions of food retailers are evidence of intentional disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. This parallel is not simply metaphorical. Historically, supermarkets grew up along with the suburbs, relying on the sprawling, car dependent landscape of these low density communities.8 Supermarkets were created with suburban residents in mind, and so the forces that created the suburbs also shaped our food shopping options.