Pandemic Made Unequal Access to Food Even Worse, Study Suggests
Food deserts were a major issue for low-income communities long before the pandemic—but it stands to reason that the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown might make a bad situation even worse. A new study from a team of Ohio State researchers finds that unequal access to food was exacerbated in the Columbus, Ohio area during the pandemic period, a finding the research team expects to find similar evidence for nationally. Spotlight spoke recently with one of the study authors, Ohio State doctoral student Armita Kar, about the new research. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t you start by giving us an overview of the study and what prompted you to do it?
I am a Ph.D. student from the Geography Department at The Ohio State University. The other professors on this paper were Dr. Harvey Miller and Dr. Huyen Le from the same department, Dr. Yasuyuki Motoyama from the City and Planning Department, and Dr. Andre Carrel from Civil, Environmental, and Geodetic Engineering. Our basic goal was to understand how COVID is impacting our access to essential services—that can be food, health care, park, and recreation facilities. In this paper, we focused on access to food and how COVID is impacting it, based on different socio-economic groups.
So, we evaluated the existing socioeconomic disparities in access to supermarkets and grocery stores. We quantified the decline and recovery of these grocery stores by store type—we have four types of stores considered in this study: big box stores, mid-to-high-end stores, dollar stores, and local stores. We also visualized the changes—how traffic flows to the stores changed—and how, over time, the store visitors changed.
We had three time periods: pre-lockdown (January to March); lockdown (March to April); and initial reopening (April to May). And to just summarize our key findings, we found that the pre-existing disparities among low-income groups in Columbus getting access to healthier food became even worse during COVID.
In the pre-COVID period, you were finding that low-income communities already were having difficulty accessing food stores with more healthy products, correct?
If you look at the spatial distribution of different store types in the study, low-income people in Columbus were mostly served by local stores and dollar stores. They do not have any nearby big box stores or mid-to-high-end stores. They used to make longer-distance travel to some extent to supermarkets but after COVID that mostly disappeared. The changes in transportation services during COVID are perhaps the reason here. Low-income people had fewer transportation options since public transit offered limited services and schedules, and carpooling was no longer an option due to the social distancing policies.
So, you saw those trends grow even stronger during the pandemic?
Exactly, that’s correct.
There’s an effort in California to increase the amount of healthy foods and fresh vegetables in dollar stores. Are you seeing anything like that in Columbus?
We checked the type of produce that dollar stores in Columbus sell and it’s not usually fresh produce—most of it is frozen and/or processed. They do have staple foods such as grains, meats, and greens, but in most cases, everything else is processed or frozen. The thing is people still visit dollar stores because they are cheaper and they are the available stores nearby. The pattern of travel to dollar stores and local stores in low-income areas stayed pretty much the same. Those stores didn’t see much decline. With the supermarkets, those had a significant decline in visitors during the pandemic period and at the same time, they have had the fastest recovery.
Is there also a racial equity component? Are stores with more White customers quicker to rebound?
All of the supermarkets had visitors with a higher percentage of White people and of higher-income people and when the pandemic started, they were able to quickly switch to online shopping. Those shoppers could stockpile, which low-income families weren’t able to afford. So that’s how we explain the drastic drop during the lockdown phase. During the post-lockdown phase, the visits to nearby supermarkets began to recover and most of those are higher-income people from nearby neighborhoods. The long-distance trips by low-income people to supermarkets disappeared and still have yet to recover.
What do you think the reason would be for the slower rebound of dollar stores?
The dollar stores located in low-income areas didn’t see much change, and that’s also why the recovery pattern was insignificant. It was pretty much flat. There were a few dollar stores located in higher-income areas and they saw the biggest drop and haven’t really come back yet. That’s probably because low-income people mainly shop from dollar stores, and the pattern persists even during the pandemic.
Does the study yield any data on the impact of low-income people being able to have digital access to safety net programs like SNAP and WIC during the pandemic?
We didn’t break out SNAP recipients specifically in our study.
What about the connection between a lack of access to healthy foods and a higher prevalence to eat at fast-food restaurants? Is that something you looked at?
Not in this study, but we’ve done another paper that has been accepted by the Annals of the American Association of Geographers and is currently in press for publication. In that paper, we explored the socio-economic differences in essential travel and saw frequent visits of low-income populations to fast food restaurants. We suggest that these low-income visitors mostly represent the workers and consumers of fast-food stores and reflect their dependency on these restaurants for their food needs and livelihood.
Has anyone done a national version of this study?
Our study is very much replicable and we hope others will use it. We’re working on a different study that hasn’t been published yet that involves 22 cities across the country and explores the equity in access to food and health care by public transit.
And finally, what prompted you to want to do this study?
My primary research interest involves accessibility, sustainable transportation, and equity—how to improve mobility for people by providing better access, particularly among the more marginalized population. We knew that those populations had been impacted in many other ways by COVID, so we wanted to look at these areas specifically and try to measure what had happened. The lessons learned from this research will help us rebuild our communities with greater resilience and be better prepared for future pandemics.