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Examining Food Insecurity Using the American Housing Survey

You may have heard the term “food desert” tossed around in conversation lately. But what does it mean? In 2010, an estimated 29.7 million Americans lived in low-income areas and were more than one mile away from a grocery store (Ver Ploeg et al., 2012). To see if the area you live in is considered a food desert, visit the Food Access Research Atlas at

Lawmakers, physicians, non-profits, farmers and a host of other professionals have started to recognize the importance of this problem. Even the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has made it her mission through her Let’s Move! campaign to combat hunger and encourage the consumption of healthier food in order to have a more active lifestyle. Access to food has been studied for its potential health risks, such as obesity and respiratory problems.[1] Attention has also been paid to the characteristics of those who are in food deserts and indicate that African American and low-income households are less likely to have grocery stores nearby.[2]

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) American Housing Survey (AHS), provides a national data set that can be used to explore the issue of access to grocery stores. The AHS is a national survey currently conducted in odd-numbered years. In 2003, the AHS began asking people whether or not they had a grocery or drug store within one mile of their home. The same question was asked in 2005.

In 2007 and 2009, the question was altered to ask about grocery stores and drug stores within 15 minutes of the household, thereby changing the unit of measurement from distance to time. The 2013 AHS was improved to include a wider range of questions about grocery stores, presumably because of growing national interest in the issue. 2013 data distinguishes between “full-service grocery stores” and “convenience stores” within 15 minutes of the household.

Professor Doug Hess, in Political Science/Policy Studies, recently found that these data had not been analyzed in depth. I worked on this data for a MAP last summer and continued working on it this year. I will be presenting my data at the Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago next month.

Using the 2013 data, I created three models that use logistic regression to identify characteristics that predict limited access to grocery stores. The models examine the following outcome variables(all measuring within 15 minutes of the respondents’ home: no full-service grocery store, only a convenience store, and neither a full-service grocery store nor a convenience store). The models include predictors identifying several socioeconomic characteristics (only race and the ratio of income to poverty are discussed here).

The results of my models confirm what prior research using different data found about the relationship of race and income to store access. All non-White race and ethnicity categories are less likely to have a full-service grocery store within 15 minutes of their household. Non-Whites are also more likely to say that they only have a convenience store nearby.

Income as a ratio to the poverty threshold produces a pattern in all three models’ results. Those in the lower-income categories are more likely to report that they do not have a full-service grocery store, only have a convenience store, or do not have either store nearby.

Households that do not have a vehicle are much more likely to not have a grocery store and to only have a convenience store nearby. These households were also more likely to not have either type of store within 15 minutes, which could be a very burdensome situation as vehicles are the primary mode of acquiring groceries.

Research is beginning to look at the variety in quality of grocery stores, in terms of the healthfulness of the products they sell, and the 2013 AHS provides a crucial first-glance at the inequality of access that exists in America today. Hopefully, in the near future, the AHS will expand their questions about grocery store access, more research will be done, and policy in the U.S. will change to reflect the seriousness of this issue and begin to resolve the current situation.


[1] (Bodor et al., 2010; California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 2008; Carroll-Scott et al., 2013; Drewnowski et al., 2012; Larson et al., 2009; Ver Ploeg, et al., 2009).

[2] (Beaulac et al., 2009; Baker et al., 2006; Dutko et al., 2012; Galvez et al., 2007; Moore & Diez Roux, 2006; Morland et al., 2002; Powell et al., 2006; Sharkey et al., 2009; Sharkey et al., 2010; Ver Ploeg et al., 2012)



  1. American Housing Survey. (2014). Codebook. Available at: <>
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  14. Sharkey, Joseph R., Scott Horel, and Wesley R. Dean. “Neighborhood Deprivation, Vehicle Ownership, And Potential Spatial Access To A Variety Of Fruits And Vegetables In A Large Rural Area In Texas.” International Journal Of Health Geographics(2010): 26-52. Academic Search Premier. Web.
  15. Sharkey, Joseph R., Scott Horel, Daikwon Han, and John C. Huber. “Association between Neighborhood Need and Spatial Access to Food Stores and Fast Food Restaurants in Neighborhoods of Colonias.”International Journal of Health Geographics1 (2009): 9. Web.
  16. United States Department of Agriculture-Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS). Food & Nutrition Assistance. By Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Christian Gregory, and Matthew Rabbitt. USDA ERS. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
  17. Ver Ploeg, Michele, Vince Breneman, Paula Dutko, Ryan Williams, Samantha Snyder, Chris Dicken, and Phil Kaufman. “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Updated Estimates of Distance to Supermarkets Using 2010 Data”, ERR-143, S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, (2012).
  18. White House, “First Lady Michelle Obama on Making a Difference in Cities with Food Deserts.”Let’s Move. 09 July 2014. <>.

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