Background

Conceptualizations about “food deserts” (areas lacking healthful food/drink) and “food swamps” (areas where less-healthful offerings overwhelming healthier options) may be inaccurate and incomplete.Our objective was to more accurately and completely characterize food/drink offerings in urban areas.

Methods

DESIGN: Cross-sectional assessment of healthful and less-healthful food/drink offerings from both storefront and non-storefront businesses. SETTING - New York City: the Bronx (higher-poverty, mostly minority) and the Upper East Side (UES; wealthier, predominantly white).PARTICIPANTS: All businesses (n=662) on 63 street segments in the Bronx and all businesses (n=330) on 46 street segments in the UES.

Results

Greater percentages of Bronx businesses offered any food/drink, any healthful food/drink, and only less-healthful food/drink (42.0%, 37.5%, 4.4%, respectively) than UES businesses (30%, 27.9%, 2.1%, respectively).Differences were driven mostly by “other storefront businesses” (OSBs; businesses not primarily focused on selling food/drink but that often do: banks, gyms, barber shops, etc.). OSBs accounted for 36.0% of all open food/drink-offering businesses in the Bronx (more numerous than restaurants or so-called “food stores”) and 18.2% in the UES (more numerous than “food stores”).Street vendors also offered food/drink in both study areas.If OSBs and street vendors were ignored, the missed percentages of streets segments offering food/drink would be 14.5% in the Bronx and 21.9% in the UES.

Conclusions

OSBs and street vendors can offer substantial proportions of healthful and less-healthful food/drink in communities.Focusing on only “food stores” and restaurants may result in missed or mischaracterized “food deserts,” “food swamps,” and food/drink-source disparities between communities.