Access to foods using Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a case study

Objective versus subjective issues


  • Zeenat Kotval-K Michigan State University
  • Shruti Khandelwal Michigan State University
  • Kendra Wills Michigan State University Extension



Food Deserts, Food Access, Alternative Grocery, Public Transit, Perception of Barriers


Low access and low income are two of the primary factors used in determining the food desert desig­nation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Low access is defined as a geographical area where 33% or more people are living beyond one mile from a supermarket in an urban region, and a low-income area is defined as one with a poverty rate of either 20% or more, or median family income falling below 80% of statewide or metropolitan area family income. These criteria have been in place for several years now. This study aims to assess the adequacy of these criteria for food desert designa­tion and further investigate perceptions of barriers to fresh and healthy foods and measure physical ‘access’ for those reliant on the public transporta­tion in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The study includes a preliminary price comparative analysis of selected fresh foods in local grocery stores, spatial mapping using GIS to measure accessibility, and interviews with families at three schools located in food desert census tracts. Results of this study indicate that, first, there are other factors to consider when designating areas as food deserts such as public transit availability and inclusion of alternate food retail stores where fresh and healthy foods may be purchased, and secondly, perceptions of barriers to access fresh and healthy foods for families depend on mobility and cost preferences. Implications include a greater aware­ness of transit availability, alternate venues, acceptance of federal benefits such as SNAP-EBT, and incentivizing existing stores to sell healthier produce in disadvantaged areas.


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Author Biographies

Zeenat Kotval-K, Michigan State University

Ph.D., AICP; Assistant Professor of Urban & Regional Planning, School of Planning, Design & Construction

Shruti Khandelwal, Michigan State University

Doctoral Student in Planning, Design & Construction, School of Planning, Design & Construction

Kendra Wills, Michigan State University Extension

Extension Educator, Community Food and Environment



How to Cite

Kotval-K, Z., Khandelwal, S., & Wills, K. (2021). Access to foods using Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a case study: Objective versus subjective issues. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 10(3), 145–159.