Cite as:

Michael J. WidenerSara S. Metcalf, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, Dynamic urban food environments: A temporal analysis of access to healthy foods, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 41(4): 439-441 (2011).


Background: Low-income, urban populations’ limited access to healthy foods is often pointed to as a key barrier to improving nutrition. Although much has been written on identifying urban “food deserts,” little has been done to examine how the food environment changes over the course of 1 year.

Purpose: This study was designed to dynamically describe the urban food environment as a means to identify when at-risk neighborhoods are without access to healthy food.

Methods: Demographic and road data of Buffalo NY from the 2000 U.S. Census, a 2010 listing of city supermarkets, and 2011 government records of the time and location of urban farmers’ markets are mapped. Road network distances from block groups to supermarkets and farmers’ markets are calculated. A computer simulation, written in 2011, examines the market closest to each block group for 52 weeks.

Results: The average distance to markets with produce from block groups with poverty levels in the top 10th percentile is greater than that across all block groups during winter and spring months. However, during the farmers’ market season, the same impoverished block groups are on average closer to markets when compared to all block groups.

Conclusions: Including the temporal dimension in an analysis of healthy food access generates a more complex picture of urban food-desert locations. The implications are that spatiotemporal factors should be used to inform appropriate interventions for creating an equitable food environment.

Press Release: Tomatoes-to-Go: New Solutions For Urban Food Deserts

BUFFALO, NY - If you've ever gone grocery shopping at your corner bodega or nearest gas station, you know that healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables, can be hard to find. This is the dilemma faced daily by the poorest Americans

Impoverished neighborhoods are often located in "food deserts" where supermarkets are rare and residents' ability to purchase healthy food is restricted by limited transportation options, low incomes, and time. These factors force residents of food deserts to rely on convenience stores and fast food chains for nutrition. This, in turn, is a public health danger, contributing to higher rates of diabetes, cardiac disease, and other obesity-related illnesses among poorer populations.

Researchers from the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and the University at Buffalo, SUNY have identified a unique solution to this pressing issue: a mobile produce distribution system.

As a case study, they examine Buffalo, NY - one of the poorest cities in the United States. Local non-profit Massachusetts Avenue Project is addressing the city's food deserts with the Buffalo Grown Mobile Market, a single truck delivering affordable, locally-grown produce to low-income areas. The scientists take the mobile market idea and expand it, using population and income data to determine which spatial locations would best reach Buffalo's underserved residents.

"With relatively few resources, our model increases these residents' access to healthy foods, helping to create a healthier city," says lead author Michael J. Widener, "Our methods can also be applied to other cities." Dr. Widener is joining the faculty of the University of Cincinnati and he continues to collaborate with NECSI.

In other work, the researchers also discovered that access to food fluctuates over the yearly cycle. with farmers' markets alleviating the issue in the summer months and altering the spatial geography of need. This challenges previous understandings, which characterized food deserts as static.

“Our work combines nutrition and geography with mathematical modeling to help address the needs of people trapped in food deserts,” says Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of NECSI. “Science can help us understand how cities work, and how to solve their problems at low cost with smart solutions.”

Locations of farmers’ markets and supermarkets, with levels of household poverty in Buffalo NY