University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Finding food assistance and food retailers in Detroit

The Great Recession, officially lasting from December 2007 to June 2009, had a dramatic and sustained impact on work, earnings, and poverty in most communities in the United States. Even though the recession officially ended in 2009, the effects of the downturn persist for many low-income households whose work opportunities and earnings have not returned to prerecession levels. In particular, unemployment and poverty rates have remained above prerecession levels longer than they have after any other recession in modern times. Similarly, rates of food insecurity, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation, and use of emergency food assistance programs increased during the downturn and also remain well above prerecession levels. Since the Great Recession there also has been a great deal of interest in the effect of spatial context on household food insecurity and food shopping choices. Much of the research to date has been focused on the presence of “food deserts,” areas without large supermarkets or grocery chains that are key sources of affordable and fresh food. Living in food deserts or areas distant from food retailers is thought to make it difficult for households to purchase adequate food and healthy food items, which should lead to lower levels of household food security. Aspects of place may matter to receipt of food assistance as well. For example, some evidence suggests that the presence of nonprofit food assistance programs also can vary widely by neighborhood and across communities, ironically being less accessible to low-income populations most in need. As with food retailers, we might expect spatial access to food assistance programs to shape decisions to participate. In this article, we link survey data from the first two waves of the Michigan Recession and Recovery Study (MRRS) in metropolitan Detroit to unique information about the location of key food resources in metro Detroit. Specifically, we examine household spatial access to three types of food resources that often are hypothesized to be associated with food assistance and food security outcomes among low-income households: SNAP administrative offices, food pantries, and SNAP-licensed food retailers. Research findings summarized in this article contribute to the study of place, poverty, and food assistance program participation in several ways. First, we are able to link food resource access to key demographic characteristics in a representative sample from a large metropolitan area. Second, we develop precise measures of spatial access to food resources; such measures may be useful to researchers looking to identify factors associated with food security, SNAP participation, or other household food outcomes in subsequent work. Finally, amidst mounting public and private efforts to improve access to food resources, our findings may be relevant to decisions about how and where to allocate program investments.


Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance, Food Insecurity, Neighborhood Effects, Place, Spatial Mismatch