I have conducted a fair amount of research into organic food consumers, which has shown that education is the most important factor in determining whether someone will buy organic food. The statistical results are rather striking, and show that as someone’s education increases (these are the categories studied: didn’t graduate from high school, has high school diploma or GED, some college, has a college degree, has a post graduate degree), the likelihood of buying organic food rises until the post graduate degree level is reached. At this point, the likelihood declines slightly. Interesting, yes?
One result of our research – which supports industry studies – is that black households are less likely to buy organic food. I have often wondered about this result, because an econometric analysis holds constant for education, income, and other factors included in the model. How can this be?? That made me wonder about access and its influence on someone’s ability to buy organic food. A forthcoming publication I coauthored with Rachael Dettmann incorporates a rudimentary measure of “access to organic.” After all, if people can’t find organic food, how can they buy it? A proxy variable for access was used, which was whether a household lived within 5 miles of a Whole Foods store. Despite its crudeness, his variable turned out to be important in the model.
That finding led to a bigger question: how does access to organic food vary in different locales? Two colleagues (one at Clark University and one in Washington DC) and I undertook an intensive data collection effort. My area was Manhattan NY, and with the help of some of the great food studies students (Laura Mirsch, Stephanie Rogus, Julia Ficht, Eric Bielsky, Laurel Greyson, Krystal Ford), we set out to identify the spatial distribution of organic food in Manhattan. We collected data on the presence of 24 different organic products that fit broadly into the dairy and produce (fresh and frozen) categories, and also included meat. One day we hope to compare our findings for the 3 regions studies.
The findings for Manhattan were pretty remarkable. First of all, organic food is available throughout Manhattan: not everywhere but in a lot of the neighborhoods. More than I had expected. Secondly, stores with a lot of organic products are mainly located in the parts of the more affluent parts of the city. See the following map, again made by Laura Mirsch (my collaborator on a paper on organic food access in Manhattan). The index represents the percent of the (24) organic products available in the store. Each mark represents a store; the green dots mean that the store sells at least 10 products, the yellow dots are for stores with 1-9 products, and the red dots are for stores with no organic products.
I think it is important to think about all types of food access. We are accustomed to thinking about the rural and urban poor’s access to healthy food. So, some may argue that my suggestion that everyone should have access to organic food is off base, because organic food is considered a “luxury” product (technically, in econ jargon, a luxury good is something you buy more of when your income rises).
Our food choices are individual, and we are all free to chose what to eat. And thus, in this sense, as we think about improving access to healthy food, let’s think about whether we should be including organic food in this category.