“Every time you turn around and want to get something to eat the only thing you see is one of these greasy joints and fast food restaurants.”
“The community right here is all fast food restaurants, you don’t have the vegetables and what you’re supposed to be eating. You got to go out the neighborhood to get it.”
These statements were made by residents on Chicago’s South Side , but they could have been uttered by residents from any number of Black neighborhoods across the country. It has long been voiced at the community level that Black neighborhoods have disproportionate densities of fast food restaurants. And research studies have consistently supported these claims .
A 2004 study conducted in New Orleans looked at the relationship between fast food density (the number of restaurants per square mile in shopping areas) and the percentage of Black residents. They also looked at the effect of neighborhood income. Only the percentage of Black residents was related to fast food density, and Black neighborhoods had 6 times as much fast food as White neighborhoods . On the other hand, a study in Atlanta showed that low and high income predominantly Black areas had less access than comparable White areas to restaurants that were not fast food . The fact that this was true for low and high income areas highlights the fact that income is not the driving factor. It is often assumed that if Black neighborhoods have high densities of fast food restaurants, it is because those neighborhoods are lower in income than White neighborhoods, and perhaps fast food companies target lower income customers. But research consistently shows that income is not the only factor. In some studies, race is just as important as income. In others, race is the only important factor.
For example, a study in New York City showed that across the 5 boroughs, fast food was prevalent in commercial areas, such as shopping districts, tourist areas, transportation hubs and central business districts (e.g., Times Square, Port Authority, Penn Station, Wall Street). But in residential neighborhoods, fast food was most prevalent in Black and Latino neighborhoods . In that study, the percentage of Black residents was the strongest predictor of fast food density—income was not related. White and Black areas with comparable incomes did not have the same exposure to fast food, and Black areas that were high in income did not have lower exposure than areas that were lower in income. This suggests that fast food location in NYC is about race, not income.
In Latino and Black South Los Angeles, a study found that 73% of restaurants were limited service, while only 27% were full service. And, compared to predominantly White West Los Angeles, the community had fewer restaurants overall—half as many, in fact. Finally, only 27% of restaurants in South L.A. used healthy food preparation options, compared to 40% in West L.A. . In a study conducted in several U.S. cities, not only was fast food exposure greater in Black neighborhoods, but exposure to fast food was related to greater consumption of fast food and lower probability of consuming a healthy diet . Indeed, several studies have shown that proximity to fast food is related to greater consumption, higher obesity prevalence, and chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.
And, although Black neighborhoods are overabundant in fast food, research also shows that they have less access to supermarkets . It is also worth noting that research also shows Black neighborhoods to have fewer retail stores in general (stores that are not fast food). For example, also in NYC, predominantly Black zip codes had fewer retail stores than White zip codes, and there was less diversity in the types of food service stores. This was true even though Black zip codes had the same amount of retail space and more transit rail than White zip codes . Research at the national level also shows that Black neighborhoods have less retail. Again, the same findings do not emerge for income as for race [10.
Below are a few images to illustrate some key points.
As stated above, Chicago’s South Side has a high density of fast food. The first map below shows some of the fast food and liquor stores that are in and around the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. No supermarkets operate in the area—the only places to buy food are from food and liquor stores such as Calumet Food and Liquor. The next set of maps show fast food in Central and East Harlem, compared to the Upper East Side. As can be seen, Harlem has much more fast food, which is what the NYC Department of Health reported in 2007 . The last map compares Bedford-Stuyvesant to Park Slope. Again, predominantly Black Bed-stuy has more fast food.These maps show both national chains and smaller chains that sell fried chicken. Many of these smaller chains with fried chicken in their name are pervasive in Black communities, whether it be New York, Newark or Philly.