Advances in Applied Sociology
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 30-35
Published Online January 201 4 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/aasoci) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aasoci.2014.41006
From Food Desert to Food Mirage: Race, Social Class, and
Food Shopping in a Gentrifying Neighborhood
Daniel Monroe Sullivan
Department of Sociology, Portland State University, Portland, USA
Received November 14th, 2013; revised December 14th, 2013; accepted December 21st, 2013
Copyright © 2014 Daniel Monroe Sullivan. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Com-
mons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pro-
vided the original work is prop erly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attributio n License all Copy-
rights © 2014 are reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Daniel Monroe Sullivan. All
Copyright © 2014 a re guarded by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
New supermarkets in previous “food deserts” can benefit residents by improving their access to healthful,
affordable food. But in gentrifying neighborhoods characterized by the inflow of middle-class, white res-
idents and the outflow of working class, minorities, who benefits from a new supermarket that emphasizes
organic food and environmental sustainability? This paper contributes to the food access literature by
examining the food shopping behavior of diverse residents by using survey data and probability sampling
in the Alberta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon (USA). Regression results show that college-educated
(62%) and white residents (60%) are much more likely to shop there weekly, regardless of age, gender,
owner-renter status, distance from supermarket, or length of time living in the neighborhood. These find-
ings indicate that supermarkets that promote healthy living and environmental sustainability need to be
sensitive to the racial “symbolic boundaries” and socioeconomic barriers that may create “food mirages”
by limiting food access to poor and minority residents.
Keywords: Food Access; Food Des ert; Food Mirage; Social Exclusion; Gentrification; Neighborhoods;
Race; Social Class
Imagine yourself living in a racially, ethnically, and socio-
economically mixed neighborhood that has been a food desert
for the past seven years. Yes, there were supermarkets in sur-
rounding neighborhoods to which you could drive or take pub-
lic transportation. But there were only small corner stores in
your neighborhood, mostly filled with processed, unhealthful
food. During those seven years a boarded-up former supermar-
ket with a barbed wire fence surrounding it served as a constant
reminder of your food desert condition. Now, fast forward sev-
en years. You walk into a new neighborhood supermarket that
replaces the boarded-up one. It has bright-colored walls and art,
large windows that let in natural light, a knowledgeable staff,
and wide aisles filled with fresh organic fruit, vegetables, fish,
meat, and cheese. There is even a place for you to sit and enjoy
a coffee or sandwich.
Most of us would agree that residents living in neighbor-
hoods with a supermarket have greater food access than those
living in neighborhoods without one. Indeed, scholars from a
range of countries have documented food deserts in poor
neighborhoods (Alwitt & Donley, 1997; Coveney & O’Dwyer,
2009; Paez et al., 2010; Sparkes et al., 2011)—including poor
and minority neighborhoods in the USA (Morland et al., 2002;
Small & McDermott, 2006; Walker et al., 2010), and the re-
sulting limited availability, lower quality, and higher prices of
fruit, vegetables and other healthful food (Wrigley, 2002; White,
2007). Although some studies have found that residents in food
deserts are able to find ways of accessing food sufficiently out-
side their neighborhood (Hallsworth & Wood, 1986; Guy &
David, 2004; White et al., 2004), it is clear that neighborhoods
without supermarkets create an environment that contributes to
residents having a variety of health problems including obesity,
cardiovascular problems, and certain types of cancer (Larson et
Competing Views of a New Supermarket in a
Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the ques-
tion of how many and what type of neighborhood residents
benefit from the new supermarket. Developers, as well as some
local politicians, neighborhood leaders and other “urban revita-
lization/regeneration” advocates (they tend to avoid the term
“gentrification”), would certainly interpret the new supermarket
as an unequivocal positive change. In fact, it fits neatly within
their larger belief that the middle class moving into poor urban
neighborhoods is beneficial to all residents—it deconcentrates
poverty, increases economic diversity, and creates what they
would call urban regeneration, renewal, revitalization, or some
other positive term (Grogan, 2000; Byrne, 2003). As Duany
(2001, p. 36) states, gentrification is “the rising tide that lifts all
boats.” Shaw and Porter (2009), commenting on studies of
“urban regeneration” strategies in many cities throughout the
world, are critical of the near unanimity among advocates and
their unwillingness to consider possible negative consequences
OPEN ACCESS 30
D. M. SULLIVAN
such as how little low-income residents benefit from develop-
ment activities (but see Pascual-Molinas & Ribera-Fumaz,
To be fair, the perspective of development advocates has
some validity. In free-market economies, businesses are more
likely to open in neighborhoods that have sufficient demand for
their products. So higher-income residents moving into poor
neighborhoods will provide market signals to prospective busi-
nesses that there is now sufficient demand for their products.
And there are numerous examples of this happening, including
the opening or upscaling of supermarkets (Bridge & Dowling,
2001; Gonzalez & Waley, 2012). What is missing from the
food access discussion, however, is an analysis of which neigh-
borhood residents shop at the supermarkets and how frequently;
proponents are satisfied by the mere existence of these super-
markets and do not investigate the possibility of social exclu-
Many urban scholars, however, would examine the opening
of this supermarket more critically, questioning whether the
food desert has truly disappeared or whether the neighborhood
has become instead a “food mirage”—i.e., what appears to be
adequate neighborhood food access actually obscures social
exclusion, with some minority residents and those with less
education and income finding the new supermarket to be too
expensive or culturally alien (Short et al., 2007; Everett, 2011;
Breyer & Voss-Andreae, 2013). First, many urban scholars
would not label the general neighborhood changes using posi-
tive terms such as urban regeneration but instead call it gentri-
fication, which Kennedy & Leonard (2001) define as the pro-
cess of wealthier residents moving into poorer neighborhoods
in sufficient numbers to change its social class composition and
neighborhood identity. Second, they would note that research-
ers have found that most new retail in gentrifying neighbor-
hoods caters to newcomers and outside clientele, who are more
likely to be white and have more education and income than
longtime residents. They usually support this claim by using
one or more of the following strategies: 1) describing how the
semiotics of the new retail—e.g., products, prices and cultural
symbols such as music and signage appeal largely to gentrifiers
(Patch, 2008; Zukin, 2008; Zukin et al., 2009), 2) detailing a
qualitative account of the typical gentrifier clientele of the new
retail (Lloyd, 2006; Zukin, 2008; Zukin et al., 2009), or 3) in-
terviewing a small number of non-randomly selected longtime
residents regarding their feelings of social exclusion toward
new retail (Freeman, 2006; Maurrasse, 2006; Deener, 2007;
Sullivan and Shaw, 2011).
I argue that, although these urban scholars’ skepticism may
be justified when referring to retail that sell non-essential retail
goods—e.g., restaurants, bars, and clothing boutiques—it re-
mains unclear whether their skepticism is merited when ana-
lyzing retail that sell essential goods like supermarket food.
Unlike lattes, tattoos, and hand-made purses, everyone needs
food. We need more evidence regarding the extent to which
different types of residents in a gentrifying neighborhood bene-
fit from a supermarket opening in a previous food desert.
I also argue that the evidence needs to be collected in a sys-
tematic way, using probability sampling and surveying a sub-
stantial number of residents. These data will allow researchers
to use regression analysis to measure the salience of resident
characteristics: e.g., race/ethnicity, social class, and years living
in the neighborhood. Like Short et al. (2007) and Breyer &
Voss-Andreae (2013), I also contend that it is vital to under-
stand residents’ actual food shopping behavior rather than just
the presence of a new supermarket, since their usage will most
directly measure how much they benefit from it.
This paper examines resident use of a relatively new super-
market in the Alberta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, one-
that is a racially and socioeconomically mixed, gentrifying, and
that did not have a supermarket for a number of years until one
opened recently. This study, on the one hand, examines the tacit
assumption of the pro-development advocates by examining the
actual shopping behavior of residents—429 randomly selected
ones using survey data—rather than simply assuming they shop
at the new supermarket. It also, on the other hand, contributes
to the retail gentrification literature by focusing on essential
retail items—food—rather than non-essential ones such as fa-
shion clothes and lattes. The two main research questions are:
How frequently do neighborhood residents shop at the new
supermarket? And, given the diversity among residents, are
there differences in usage based race, social class or other de-
Portland: Example of Environme ntal S u stain ab ility
Portland is known nationally and internationally for its pro-
gressive planning and environmental sustainability (Svoboda,
2008; Zellmer, 2010). Its regional and city government promote
such pro-environmental policies as reducing carbon dioxide
emission (Rutland & Aylett, 2008), recycling, composting,
public transportation (Killingsworth & Lamming, 2001), bi-
cycle commuting (Mirk, 2012), and urban growth boundaries
(Jun, 2004). This last feature minimizes urban sprawl and en-
courages local agriculture. In tandem with local nonprofits, the
Portland region has farm-to-school food programs and a sub-
stantial number of farmers markets and community- supported
agriculture programs (The Diggable City Project Team, 2005).
It should come as no surprise that many Portlanders, including
newcomers, embrace pro-environmental policies and are at-
tracted to such food-related activities as urban farming and
local/region food options. Related to environmental sustainabil-
ity and healthy food initiatives, a substantial number of resi-
dents engage in what Baarts and Pedersen (2009) refer to as
“mind -body” practices—i.e., activities that emphasize an aware-
ness of interrelatedness of the mental, emotional, and physical
components of well-being such as alternative medicine, yoga,
tai chi, meditation, and acupuncture. This set of practices is
supported by Portland’s large Oregon College of Oriental Me-
dicine and other mind- body training institutions.
The Alberta Neighbor ho od
Portland residents who are attracted to environmental sustai-
nability, healthy eating, and mind-body practices are not evenly
distributed spatially throughout the city. One of the areas to
which they are attracted is the Alberta neighborhood. A person
touring through the Alberta neighborhood would immediately
notice the large number of bike lanes, community and private
vegetable and fruit gardens, chicken coops, and dozens of
It should come as no surprise that, as residents attracted to
environmental sustainability and mind-body practices have
OPEN ACCESS 31
D. M. SULLIVAN
moved into the neighborhood, there has been marked gentrifi-
cation. There has been a large increase in residents with a col-
lege degree, professional and managerial occupations, and me-
dian household income. There has been a similar increase in
house prices and rent. Although difficult to measure, there has
also been displacement of longtime residents, many of whom
are low-income (Burk, 2006; Schmidt, 2012). This process of
gentrification has been accompanied by substantial racial
change, with a decline in black residents (from 34% in 1990 to
14% in 2010) and an increase in whites (from 57% to 73%).
The decline in black residents coincides with a decrease in
black businesses and institutions (Beaven, 2005; Fitzgibbon,
2006), although some are managing to maintain their neigh-
borhood presence (Scott, 2012).
The New Supermarket
This area had been a food desert from 1994 onward when the
only supermarket within one mile of its center closed. For sev-
en years, residents had to choose between patronizing the do-
zens of neighborhood corner stores that sold largely unhealthful
food and drink and shopping at a supermarket outside the
Within this context of residential and retail change, including
more residents and higher incomes, it is not surprising that a
supermarket opened in what had been previously a food desert.
And it is not just a standard supermarket. Mirroring the busi-
nesses that had already opened in the neighborhood in the near
past, the new supermarket sells products and a life-style that
promote a mind-body connection. It specializes in organic fruits
and vegetables, sustainably harvested fish, non-industrially
processed meats, and a wide selection of cheeses, wines and
specialty beers. Many of these products are produced locally/
regionally, with signage next to them alerting the customer to
their environmental sustainability. It also promotes the mind-
body lifestyle by selling such items as BPA-free water bottles,
yoga mats, and books promoting such practices as meditation
and eating raw food. It sponsors “Health and Wellness” classes
that “promote healthy lives and well-being from the inside out.”
It encourages health and environmental sustainability, in addi-
tion, by providing bike racks, recycling bins, a newsstand with
free issues of Green Living magazine, and a free drinking water
refilling station (to discourage buying disposable plastic water
bottles). It even has the dictionary definition of sustainability
painted in large letters on its walls.
New Seasons does make an attempt, however, to increase
food access to neighborhood residents who do not easily fall
into the gentrifier, mind-body category. It sells national brands
of breakfast cereals and other common products, uses “Every-
day Value” signs to signal which products are more affordable,
accepts food stamps and coupons that assist poor women and
children, offers discounts to seniors, and donates money to
organizations that support minority residents.
The main goal of this study is to examine usage of this new
supermarket and, given the neighborhood’s racial/ethnic and
social class diversity, analyze whether particular types of resi-
dents use the store more than others.
Data and Methodology
A research team documented all occupied housing units in
eight census block groups that were close to the New Seasons
supermarket. Then vacant houses and institutionalized housing
(e.g., drug rehabilitation centers) were eliminated from the
sampling frame. 679 housing units were then randomly selected.
Surveyors attempted to maximize the response rate using the
following practices: sending a postcard in advance explaining
the goal of the survey, offering an incentive for participation,
going to the selected households at different times of the day
and evening and different days of the week, and attempting to
make contact up to twelve times. 425 individuals from these
households participated in a face-to-face survey, resulting in a
63.2% response rate. Demographic analysis revealed that par-
ticipants were similar to neighborhood residents in terms of age,
gender, whether they had children living at home, and distance
from their household to the supermarket. As is common with
neighborhood survey research, whites, homeowners, and those
with a college degree were overrepresented in the sample.
The survey was conducted approximately two and a half
years after the New Seasons supermarket opened, giving res-
pondents enough time to become aware of its existence and
change their food shopping habits, if desired. The dependent
variable is ordinal on the survey instrument, measuring the
frequency of shopping at New Seasons during the past twelve
months: never, less than monthly, at least monthly, and at least
weekly. The ordinal variable is used for univariate and bivariate
analyses, but a binary of 1 = at least weekly shopping at New
Seasons, 0 = less than weekly shopping is used for the logistic
regression analysis because it most accurately measures wheth-
er residents use New Seasons as one of their primary food
The independent variables of theoretical interest are race/
ethnicity, education, tenure status, and years living in the
neighborhood. Race/ethnicity is measured using four categories
for the initial bivariate analyses: white, non-Latino; black, non-
Latino; Latino, and other race/multiracial. Bivariate analysis
with the dependent variable, however, reveals that all three
non-white categories have similar shopping usage; so, for the
sake of parsimony, race/ethnicity is a binary in the logistic re-
gression: 1 = white, non-Lati no ; 0 = minority. Similarly, educa-
tion is originally measured in five categories: less than high
school degree, high school degree, some college/associate’s
degree, college degree, and graduate/professional degree. Biva-
riate analysis with the dependent variable, however, indicates
that the three lowest education categories have similar shopping
usage at New Seasons and the two highest education categories
also have similar usage patterns to each other but distinct from
the lower education categories. So, for the sake of parsimony,
education is a binary in the logistic regression: 1 = college de-
gree or higher; 0 = less than college degree. Tenure status is a
binary: 1 = homeowner; 0 = renter. Years living in the neigh-
borhood is a scale variable. Other independent variables are
included as control variables. Gender is binary: 1 = male; 0 =
female. Age and distance from the New Seasons supermarket
Multicollinearity diagnostics show no collinearity problems
with the most parsimonious model presented here. Interaction
terms were tested but none were statistically significant and,
hence, they were not included in the regression.
Table 1 illustrates the descriptive statistics, including for the
whole sample and stratified by race. As is common in gentrify-
D. M. SULLIVAN
ing neighborhoods that are going through racial change, whites
are more likely to own their home (69% v. 55%) and have a
college degree (62% v. 21%). Whites also tend to live slightly
closer to the new grocery store (10 blocks v. 11 blocks). Black
residents tend to be older (45 years old v. 40 years) and have
lived longer in the neighborhood (12 years v. 7 years).
The vast majority of residents (90%) have shopped at least
once at the new supermarket during the past twelve months, but
with varying levels of frequency. Fifteen percent shop there less
than monthly, 25% shop there at least monthly but less than
weekly and about 50% shop there at least weekly. This last
category—shopping there at least weekly—suggests that these
residents use the new store as one of their main food shopping
The Importance of Race
Table 1 also illustrates the usage of the new supermarket by
race. Supporting the race hypothesis at the bi-variate level,
white residents are nearly three times as likely to shop at least
weekly at the new supermarket as non-whites. There is some
variation among racial minorities—black residents (15%) are
less likely than “other race/multiracial” (33%) and Latinos
(38%)—but white weekly usage clearly surpasses all of these
minority groups. On the other extreme, non-whites are nearly
four times as likely to never have shopped there within the last
Given that race is correlated with three other important di-
mensions of living in gentrifying neighborhoods that are un-
dergoing racial change—whites are more likely to be home-
owners, college educated, and newcomers—I use regression
analysis to examine if race has an independent and nonspurious
effect on shopping behavior. Logistic regression results from
Table 2 further support the race hypothesis. In this racially
diverse neighborhood, the odds that a white resident shops there
weekly are over 3.5 times as likely as non-whites, after control-
ling for variables that are directly related to gentrification: so-
cial class, tenure status, and years living in the neighborhood.
These findings support qualitative gentrification research that
have found race/ethnicity to be an important factor in under-
standing social exclusion in regards to retail venues, which
researchers suggest is due in part to potential shoppers perceiv-
ing racialized symbolic boundaries (Maly, 2005; Deener, 2007;
Patch, 2008; Zukin et al., 2009; Sullivan & Shaw, 2011).
Descriptive statistics of variables, stratified by race.
Overall Mean Whites Non-whites
Shop at New Supermarket at Least Weekly 49.9%** 60.3% 21.2%
Shop at New Supermarket at Least Monthly 74.4%
Shop at New Supermarket at Least Yearly 89.2%
Never Shop at New Supermarket 10.8%
College Degree 50.8%** 61.6% 21.2%
Years Livi ng i n the Neighb or hood 8.5** 7.4 11.7
Gender (Male) 42.1% 44.6% 35.4%
Distance to New Supermarket (blocks) 10.0
N 425 312 113
Note: C h i-square test of proportional d ifferences. * = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01.
Logistic regression results factors influencing weekly use of new supermarket.
B Significance Standard error
Race (Whites) 1.265 ** 0.281
College degree 1.159 ** 0.242
Homeowner (reference = renter) 0.017 0.264
Years Livi ng i n the Neighb or hood −0.017 0.015
Gender (Male) −0.477 * 0.212
Age −0.003 0.011
Distance from supermarket (blocks) −0.066 * 0.021
Constant −0.434 0.484
* = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01.
OPEN ACCESS 33
D. M. SULLIVAN
My findings also contribute to the retail gentrification litera-
ture by showing that the racial differences are not limited to
stores selling non-essential goods (e.g., restaurants and bouti-
ques), but also include those that sell basic goods. Some Amer-
ican scholars help explain these racial boundaries by arguing
that alternative food practices in the U.S. are dominated by
whites, associated with whiteness, and are perpetuated by white
privilege (Slocom, 2007; Guthman, 2008; Alkon, 2012). Al-
though white businesses, workers, and customers may assume a
position of “colorblindness” when discussing such topics as
organic food, local produce, and “healthy living,” these scho-
lars argue that racial minorities often feel excluded.
The Social Class Hypothesis: Education, Not
One dimension of social class—education—also is important.
The odds that someone with a college degree shops there
weekly are over three times as high as those without a degree.
Among the different education categories, those with a college
degree or an advanced degree are about twice as likely to shop
there weekly as those with some college/two-year associate’s
degree (38%) or a high school degree (31%) and about five
times as likely as those with less than a high school degree
(17%). The weekly usage of those with a college degree or
higher (67%), however, is far higher than all of these less edu-
cated groups. These findings support the work of previous re-
searchers who find that the college-educated middle class are
more likely to have a taste for “mind-body” products and ser-
vices such as yoga, alternative medicine, and organic food
(Bridge & Dowling, 2001; Su & Li, 2011). Doel & Segrott
(2003), in addition, suggest that “mind-body” clients are well
informed about health issues, which suggests that those with
more education tend to know more about nutrition and about
the health and environmental impacts of highly processed, in-
dustrially produced, and nonlocal food.
However, another dimension of social class—tenure status
—is not significantly associated with shopping at the new su-
permarket; renters and homeowners have similar usage patterns.
Future research should examine whether income—a dimension
of social class that is not available in this data set—is correlated
with usage. The higher prices of many of New Seasons prod-
ucts, in comparison to more mainstream supermarkets in adja-
cent neighborhoods, suggests that those with more income
would be more likely to shop there regularly.
Surprisingly, once race and social class are taken into ac-
count in the regression analysis, there are no significant differ-
ences in weekly usage between newcomers and longtime resi-
dents. This suggests that the typical “newcomer” characteristics
in racially/ethnically diverse, gentrifying neighborhoods of
being white and college educated are the most salient, and that
food shopping routines that longtime residents have established
over the years are not as important.
Among the control variables, women and those living closer
to the store are more likely to shop there weekly, but age is not
Food deserts can be detrimental to neighborhood residents’
health. So it would seem intuitive that the opening of a super-
market, especially one that emphasizes healthful food and life-
style, would result in positive health effects. You would get no
argument from “urban regeneration” advocates, who espouse
the virtues of middle-class residents moving into previously
poor neighborhoods (i.e., gentrification). These virtues include
a larger retail sector, including supermarkets, from which they
assume all residents benefit. But is their assumption accurate?
Certainly urban scholars who study retail gentrification would
be skeptical, arguing that new retail cater largely to newcomers
and marginalize longtime residents, especially the poor and
minorities. But their skepticism is based largely on analyses of
non-essential retail such as boutique clothing stores and bars.
Further, their qualitative approaches, although providing rich
detail, do not systematically measure shopping behavior.
My study examines supermarket shopping behavior in a ra-
cially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood in Portland
that is in the process of gentrifying. Does the opening of a su-
permarket eliminate the food desert or does it instead create a
food mirage, whereby minority and lower-class residents do not
find it to be a viable option for their regular food shopping?
Using probability sampling and regression analysis, my survey
of 425 randomly selected individuals supports the skepticism of
retail gentrification scholars. Although most residents have
shopped at the new supermarket at least once in the past twelve
months, only about half of them use it regularly. White and
college-educated residents—characteristics closely aligned with
gentrifiers—are much more likely to shop there weekly than are
minority and less educated residents. These findings support the
work of Breyers & Voss-Andreae (2013) who find that none of
Portland’s racially diverse and gentrifying neighborhoods are
food deserts, but rather food mirages.
Future research should examine the reasons for these racial
and social class differences in usage. Sullivan & Shaw (2011)
use in-depth interviews to understand residents’ opinions of
new retail in this neighborhood and find significant symbolic
boundaries based on race: blacks feel excluded and are resent-
ful of the new retail, which includes a substantial number of
mind-body businesses that are similar to New Seasons. In ad di-
tion, the work of Bridge & Dowling (2001) and Su & Li (2011)
in other cities suggests that there may be symbolic boundaries
based on social class. Clearly New Seasons attempts to appeal
to a particular “mind-body” facet of the middle class— through
its food and non-food products and its other retail semiotics
—but it also makes some effort to attract other kinds of neigh-
borhood residents. Future research needs to explore further the
salience of social class by examining which facet—its cultural
or economic dimension—is most salient. Do less educated and
minority residents shop there, less mostly due to higher prices,
symbolic boundaries, and/or some other reasons?
It is clear that the mind-body lifestyle espoused by much of
the new retail in the Alberta neighborhood, including the New
Seasons supermarket, continues to grow in Portland (Gunder-
son, 2013); in fact, it is a trend that is likely to increase in other
cities throughout the US and the world. And with a growing
number of racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in
cities throughout the world, due to increasing immigration
(Pemberton, 2008; Bretherton & Pleace, 2011), the challenge
for supermarkets is to avoid creating a “food mirage” by con-
structing spaces that, on the one hand, promote healthy living
and environmental sustainability and, on the other hand, in-
D. M. SULLIVAN
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