Health Geographer Debarchana Ghosh and Student Mengyao Zhang Use GIS Mapping to Explore the Impact of Supermarket “Redlining” on Healthy Food Access in Hartford

By Loretta Waldman

Spatial Distribution of Supermarket Redlining Model (SuRIM)

“Redlining” is the illegal discriminatory practice of denying services to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic composition of those areas, and it is most commonly associated with the banking, insurance, and real estate industries. In a less common use of the concept, InCHIP Principal Investigator Debarchana Ghosh, PhD (Geography) and her graduate student Mengyao Zhang, examined how “supermarket redlining” has limited the access that residents of Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods have to fresh nutritious foods.

“Supermarket redlining” is a term used to describe a phenomenon where major chain supermarkets are disinclined to locate their stores in inner cities or low-income neighborhoods and move their existing stores out of those locations and relocate them to suburbs. The reasons for supermarket redlining are many and varied including lower demand; the higher cost of urban land, labor, and utilities; lower profit margins associated with perishable foods; the risk of theft in inner cities; the challenge of finding locations big enough to accommodate a new building of 50,000 square feet or more; and competition from other investments, such as the plan for a new $60 million baseball stadium that the city of Hartford chose to pursue instead of a new grocery store at the same location.

Ghosh and Zhang used a combination of quantitative data analysis and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping technology to study the relationship between geography or “location” and healthy food access in Hartford. They chose to study this practice because there is limited empirical data on the health impact of supermarket redlining. The findings from this study were published in 2016 in Transactions in GIS, and according to Dr. Ghosh, it is the first study to use potential spatial supermarket “redlining” as an indicator of risk for food insecurity and “food deserts” (locations where affordable and healthy food is difficult to access).

Rather than focus on a particular racial or ethnic group, Ghosh and Zhang examined all low-income people with limited access to affordable healthy food in Hartford. The primary focus of their research was on the spatial segregation or discrimination caused by chain supermarkets either closing or relocating to the suburbs. Ghosh and Zhang first calculated a “Supermarket Redlining Index” (SuRI) from five indicators to rank supermarkets in order of importance. These indicators included sales volume, employee count, acceptance of food coupons from the SNAP and WIC government assistance programs, and the size and population density of the service area. To understand the effects of supermarket closures, they next built a Supermarket Redlining Impact Model (SuRIM) using 11 indicators describing both socioeconomic and food access vulnerabilities, the interaction of which identified neighborhoods maximally impacted by spatial supermarket redlining.

The results of the study mapped critical areas of inner city Hartford where, if a nearby supermarket were to close down or relocate to the suburbs, large numbers of minority poor and disadvantaged residents would have difficulty accessing food, leading to food insecurity and perhaps a food desert. “These are the areas in the northwest of the city, basically upper downtown and north of downtown,” Dr. Ghosh explained, “…that are really critical in terms of becoming food deserts. We found out there will be a real problem in terms of accessing nutritious food and that efforts will be needed to reduce the impact of larger supermarket closures.” According to a Federal Government survey, there has been a steady rise in the percentage of households in Connecticut with food insecurity, from 7.6% in 2000-2002 to 13.4% in 2010-2012. Of those households, 36.6 percent were considered at a critical level of food insecurity. In Harford, 11 of the city’s 13 supermarkets – 85% – left the city between 1968 and 1984, and few supermarkets have opened to replace them.

Residents that live in neighborhoods where there is a cluster of large supermarkets in close proximity are less vulnerable to food insecurity when a supermarket closes or relocates, but these neighborhoods tend to be more affluent suburban neighborhoods (e.g., northwest of West Hartford, Newington, south of Wethersfield). In low-income neighborhoods, there are few supermarket options, so when a supermarket closes, only those residents who have the resources to travel the extra miles to an alternate supermarket are less vulnerable to food insecurity. Given that supermarket chains are unlikely to invest in opening new stores in these areas, mitigation efforts to minimize food insecurity and relative negative health outcomes are critical.  Ghosh and Zhang’s recommendations for improving access in these neighborhoods include investing more in fresh food stocks at the existing local medium- to small-sized grocery stores and corner stores, and encouraging more urban farms and community gardens to increase options for healthy foods for at least a few months of the year.