Food Deserts and Parking Lots

Too many people living in too many neighborhoods have too hard a time getting fresh food. In part, this problem has to do with the fact that grocery stores won’t open in poor neighborhoods—so-called ‘food deserts.’ But, because food deserts are only ‘deserts’ for people without cars, it also has to do with how accessible  grocery stores are to pedestrians.

If food deserts were just about the presence or absence of a grocery store in any particular neighborhood, then just about every suburban subdivision would warrant the name. Fairway East in Clay is not a food desert even though the nearest grocery store is 2 miles away because the people who live in Fairway East have easy access to food. They own cars and can easily drive to any number of grocery stores.

A food desert isn’t just a neighborhood without a grocery store. It’s also a neighborhood where people don’t have cars. That’s why, last summer, Last Chance For Change walked to Green Hills Grocery to show how hard it is for a lot of people on the Southside to get to fresh food. Driving from the Southside to Green Hills (or to the Nottingham Tops, or to the Western Lights Wegmans, or to the South Ave Price Rite, etc) is easy—walking there is hard, and that’s what matters.

And if the goal is to get more grocery stores within walking distance of more people, then not all grocery stores are created equal. Some—like the Route 31 Wegmans out near Fairway East—are designed to be driven to. They’re huge buildings that sit back behind huge parking lots, and they have to draw a huge number of customers from a huge area in order to survive.

This kind of design is bad for pedestrians because it’s unpleasant to walk across parking lots, but it’s also bad for food deserts because those huge parking lots could be full of housing for people who need to live within easy walking distance of a grocery store.

Take the Pond Street Tops on the Northside. It’s a 32,000 square foot store with a 85,000 square foot parking lot. Its front door is about 50 feet from the sidewalk on Pond Street and about 500 feet from the sidewalk on 1st North. That means the closest houses are actually pretty far away from the front door, and it means that fewer houses are within walking distance of the fresh food for sale in this store.

Compare that to the Co-op in Westcott. It has no parking lot, and it’s front door is right at the sidewalk. The nearest houses are just next door. In fact, if you tally up all of the street frontage around these two stores, the Co-op is within walking distance of 22% more land than is the Pond Street Tops.

Neighborhood-scale grocery stores—like the Co-op or Dominick’s in Hawley-Green—are highly accessible to people who get around on foot. That makes them really effective at putting fresh food within walking distance of lots of people. If more grocery stores in Syracuse were like them—if less land around the grocery stores we already have was wasted on parking—more people in more neighborhoods would have an easier time getting fresh food.