Nicole Peterson

Challenges for Urban Food Access in an Era of Big Data

June 20, 2016

When standing in the middle of the transit hub in Charlotte, the noise of buses and passengers overwhelms the senses. Over twenty bays serve at least that many bus lines, and the roof amplifies brake sounds, honking, engine noises, and chatter. My students astutely suggested that interviews would be nearly impossible to record. But over several years, we collected interviews and surveys in this space, studying how transit riders in Charlotte accessed fruits, vegetables, and other foods. We wrote reports for our partner organization, Friendship Gardens, about the perception and use of the mobile farmers market they provided at the transit hub on Thursday afternoons.

What became clear over time was that transportation mediates food access—people shop at a bus stop on their way home, borrow cars for weekend trips to the store, or purchase food at the transit hub. Almost all of those using the transit hub bought something to eat there every week or so, and on average, riders shopped 1.6 times per week on their bus rides. The idea of “food deserts” was incomplete, and our project suggested different ways of thinking about food in urban spaces. What we found at the intersection of transportation and food shopping suggests new elements to add to models of food insecurity, particularly the role of snacks and cultural expectations surrounding shopping. We also suggest that broader trends in urban planning that focus on big data and technology as ways to improve urban services are likely to miss important elements of food access.

“Food deserts” have been characterized broadly as areas that lack access to food, in terms of either the presence of food stores or the availability of healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat (Hendrickson et al. 2006). For example, in Charlotte, many neighborhoods do not have a full-service grocery store in their immediate area (Racine et al. 2010a), and this absence has been identified as a primary factor for poor diets and associated health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (Rose and Richards 2004; Racine et al. 2010a; Larsen et al. 2009). However, other characteristics may also be important determinants for access to food, such as transportation availability, perception of area crime, or time available to buy and prepare food (Childs and Lewis 2012), personal preferences or culture (Smith and Miller 2011), or a lack of awareness about nutrition. There is a gap in our knowledge about what creates problems of food access, or what might alleviate these, particularly in the Charlotte urban area.

We combined interview and survey data as a way to better understand the issues surrounding food access (Childs and Lewis 2012). We worked with Friendship Gardens, a project of the Friendship Trays nonprofit in Charlotte that creates community gardens, to assess one of their new programs at the uptown transit center. In fall of 2012, these organizations started a fresh produce cart at the transit center one afternoon a week. This program was in response to earlier work (Racine 2010b) that identified lack of transportation as an important variable for food access. In this project, researchers observed, interviewed, and surveyed transit riders about their use of and experiences with this cart, and monitored the sales to understand how the program is being used. Open-ended questions used in the interviews also provided confidential feedback about the program. We also replicated the survey in spring 2014 to determine effectiveness and changes over time.


What do they shop for?
About a quarter of the transit riders surveyed in 2014 have shopped at the mobile market, though they tend to purchase snacks rather than ingredients for meals (65.5 percent in 2014). Many grab a banana, apple, or orange for their ride, sometimes combining these with fried chicken or other fast food purchased at the transit hub.

When do they shop?
The day for the mobile market has been Thursday from March to October, following the seasonality for fresh produce. In 2013 and 2014, we asked which dates people would prefer shopping at the mobile market, and many suggested weekends would be preferable. Preferred additional openings for the mobile market were noon to 6 p.m. Friday (49.1 percent), Wednesday (33.3 percent), Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (all 31.6 percent). The interest in Friday and Saturday surprised those at Friendship Gardens, who say that no one is at the transit center on weekends. One of the interviewed travelers suggested in 2013 that they would prefer “Saturday, around seven. On Saturdays most people are off of work and are going to basketball games. And like now, people are getting off of work, and on Thursdays, most people do not get paid until Fridays. Saturdays would be more convenient.” These findings complicate ideas about shopping, which may not be simply accomplished on the way home, but connect to other social events and outings that are on weekends.

Why do they shop?
Shopping at the mobile market during the week thus may lead toward snacks rather than meal planning. The mobile market is convenient for snacks but may not fit into expectations about shopping. However, the mobile market also provides a way to supplement weekly shopping trips. One respondent said about the mobile market: “I think it is good because you can get some fresh produce. You can buy it down here, instead of having to wait to go to the supermarket.”

Our studies in 2013 and 2014 highlight the need to examine more than location and shopping habits for those at risk for experiencing food insecurity. “Food deserts” are static representations of food outlets that neglect the mobility of residents, as well as the cultural context of shopping, which might include specific days and habits. Surveys are often unable to capture the ways people shop for, prepare, and experience food, though remain valuable for getting larger-scale information about behavior and preferences. What does this limitation mean for how we study food access in cities like Charlotte? How can urban planning respond to these challenges?


Feeding a smart city?
A current trend in urban planning is to envision and implement “smart cities” that could respond to the needs of urban citizens by using “big data” to detect patterns and provide feedback mechanisms. These are being realized in projects like mobility apps and smart cars, connected meters, and other technologies that promise to make cities run smoother and more efficiently, with a focus on data and innovation.

Food systems are a potential target for smart technologies that can reduce waste through better communication among the different parts of the system, like tracking supply and demand or calculating footprints (e.g., Food Metres). Given the focus on mobility and transportation in many “smart cities” (Handy 2005; Firnkorn and Müller 2015), there is the potential to examine the ways transportation efficiency might also affect food access. Future research on the mobile market might examine larger transit trends and connect these to market locations or other points of overlapping access.

However, the research we completed suggests that the data we need to understand food access does not exist in “big data” quantities but rather in the qualitative habits and preferences of transit users who in many cases still experience a gap between need and access. Even mapping their transit patterns will only review what they do now, rather than what might be potential ways to improve their food security. We might imagine a case where food insecure transit riders are encouraged to stop off for the grocery store most convenient to their route home, only to find that this is still not convenient for other reasons.

Food security is the result of a complex set of relationships that go beyond the kitchen and grocery story—transit adds another element, but the model is still incomplete. In order to understand why some urban residents do not get enough to eat, we must acknowledge that more stores (Dubowitz et al. 2015), data, or even transit will not suffice.

There is an emerging literature on both food systems and smart cities that emphasizes the critical role of governance and citizen involvement in planning (Morgan and Sonnino 2010; Angelidou 2016; Lee and Lee 2014; Childs and Lewis 2012; see Kitchin et al. 2015 for a combination of both). Food security could be reframed as a governance concern rather than a technological problem of supply and demand (Sonnino 2014). Calls for governance approaches to food systems and urban planning in general include preferences for citizen engagement in decision-making through co-production, co-design, and co-evaluation processes (Castelnovo et al 2015).

Next steps
There are many valuable outcomes from examining the findings and trends explored above, along with some of my earlier work with participatory governance and institutional analyses. Designing the food system in Charlotte will require greater thought about how to start this process—what are the questions, who should ask them, and what kind of information we need to answer them. At the very least, we need to understand food as a part of other sectors—transportation, economy and wages, family, environment, and so on.

When we asked what transit riders thought might help their community eat healthier, the three most common answers were access to more variety of food (17.6 percent), lower prices (17.6 percent), and more awareness (13.4 percent). Yet creating the conditions for improved variety, prices, and awareness is a multi-sectoral challenge that requires deeper data rather than big data.

Yet this also requires a different approach to governance and food system efforts more broadly. If we cannot improve food access with a focus on the food system alone, we need to examine the connections among the different systems and develop strategies for creating a better set of interacting systems. Governance becomes crucial for setting up the conditions needed to ensure that community members play a central role in decisions that affect them, as they bring critical knowledge about preferences, habits, and goals, as well as the unique ways that their food systems interact with economy, environment, leisure, and other elements.

The following students also contributed to this article: Jessica Ballard, Lauren Ballard, Rebecca Bubp, Joshua Buck, Mary Cassada, Ucha David, Benjamin Douglas, Monica Dyer, Brianna Fulp, Michelle Grey, Bryan Guess, Athina Hinson, Eric Holsinger, Jordan Kitchens, Michele Kohan, Kristy Lally, Nicholas Evan Mathis, Erica McLeod, Gabrielle Peterson, Patrick Preudhomme, Hayden Sisk, and Lauren Whipp. Work presented here was based on research presented in the Assessment of the Friendship Gardens Mobile Market in Spring 2013 (Report to Friendship Gardens, Charlotte, NC) as well as a follow-up study in 2014. Special thanks to Katherine Metzo and Friendship Gardens for their collaboration on this work.

Nicole D. Peterson
, anthropologist at UNC Charlotte, examines how humans interact with their environments and how we can create better socio-environmental systems. She has studied marine protected areas in Mexico and climate change adaptation in Ethiopian agriculture. Dr. Peterson currently focuses on Charlotte area food security and coordinates the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability to highlight the importance of social aspects of sustainability for engineering, business, and other domains. See her previous blog post on INSS here.

The photos in this post are credited to the author.


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Cite as: 
Peterson, Nicole. 2016. “Challenges for Urban Food Access in an Era of Big Data.” EnviroSociety, 20 June.

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