Playing with your food (numbers)

There are about 2,400 people in Todd County for every grocery store. In nearby Wadena County, there are about 2,200 people for each grocery store. For most of the rest of rural Minnesota, the figures are about the same. Or lower — in Red Lake County, there are only 1,366 residents for each store.

Meanwhile, Hennepin County has almost 5,600 residents for each grocery store. Ramsey County is about the same and in suburban Dakota County the number is twice that.

Think about what that looks like if you’re a grocer. A couple thousand potential customers doesn’t let you offer as much consumer choice as five or 10 thousand.

One possible solution would be to create a bigger store and draw customers from a bigger area, essentially outcompeting some of the stores in your county. Might work, might create jobs.

But here’s another set of numbers to think about. In Todd County, 394 households are more than a mile from a grocery store and have no car. That’s more than 4 percent of the county’s households. Same in Wadena County. In Red Lake it’s almost 7 percent. In the Twin Cities, it’s 1 or 2 percent.

Building the bigger store and reducing competitors seems likely to swell the number of people who have a hard time finding good food.

You can find these numbers and a whole bunch more on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food atlas.

The notion of food deserts, places where people don’t have easy access to good food, often has an urban feel to it — inner city neighborhoods abandoned by the big food stores — but the USDA figures make it seem more rural, at least in Minnesota. (The national map you can build shows high percentages of car-less households far from grocery stores in the rural South, Appalachia, and the Indian Country of South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico.)

They also lend impetus to those folks trying to encourage the growth of local foods and the strengthening of networks that can generate a reliable supply and consumption. I hope we can get into that more in the future here at Ground Level, but in the meantime, the food atlas is a good place to poke around.

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