Students in John Abell's Economics of Food and Sustainability course researched and wrote paper about food deserts in Lynchburg last spring
12/5/2011 4:00:01 PM
LYNCHBURG—A paper researched and written by Randolph College students has been published in the Virginia Economic Journal. The students, who were part of the Economics of Food and Sustainability class taught by John Abell, spent the spring researching food deserts in Lynchburg.
The paper was the culmination of their semester-long research project. Preliminary readings for the course suggested that food deserts—-inner city locations without easy access to affordable, nutritious food—-were typical of major cities. However, Lynchburg (population 74,000) appeared to have most of the same characteristics of this phenomenon: The city has an obesity rate of 33.6 percent (7th in the country), a poverty rate of 20.7 percent (double that of the state), and a serious hunger problem, affecting as many as 22 percent of children in the city. The class learned that downtown residents have the lowest incomes (only $14,857 median household income) and the lowest rates of car ownership (44 percent) in the city.
Abell said the class members decided to see firsthand what was available at local stores and how much that food cost. Much of their class time was spent with clipboards in five downtown convenience stores and three nearby grocery stores recording prices and assessing store spacing for food, junk food, soft drinks, beer, wine, and non-food items. They found that products in convenience stores were priced 70 percent higher than comparable foods in grocery stores. When it came to fresh produce, they found only five varieties: apples, bananas, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. And, of that produce, there wasn’t enough across the five convenience stores to fill a shopping basket. What they found instead were coolers filled with sodas, beer, and wine, and shelves stocked with highly processed junk food, constituting nearly 80 percent of overall store spacing.
The class then analayzed the data and wrote the resulting paper, "Inner City Food Deserts: Case Study of Lynchburg, Virginia." The paper was co-authored by John Abell, an economics professor, Lucas Brady ’11, Isabelle Dom ’12, Ludovic Lemaitre ’11, Mareeha Niaz ’12, Louise Searle ’12, and Reid Winkler ’12. It appeared in Volume 16 of the journal.
After compiling and studying the data, the class also made recommendations for Lynchburg. They suggested the city expand the existing Community Market into a four-season farmers market and/or add a community-friendly grocery store in the downtown area.
"Research of this kind, involving hands-on data collection outside of the classroom, is still fairly atypical in economics research, where volumes of statistical data are only a mouse-click away," Abell said. "For me, as a professor, it meant something brand new: incorporating the students as equal partners in much of the class decision-making process. They eagerly took on a number of new roles."
Abell said the class also shared the findings with various public officials. "That was a decision we made as a group early on, that any useful information we gained would be made available in the public arena, rather than having our efforts be limited only to the world of academia," he said. "For example, much of what we learned about the importance of the Community Market to the city of Lynchburg during our research, we incorporated into an effort to help the City Council make an informed decision about whether to maintain public funding for the market during their budget deliberations back in the spring."
The result was a stronger connection and relationship between the College and the Community Market. One student, Mareeha Niaz '12, worked with the Community Market's manager to initiate a series of student internships for this winter and spring designed to assist the Market in a number of potential actionable areas: energy usage, marketing, and SNAP voucher (food stamp) utilization, among others.
The students also presented their findings at The Virginia Association of Economists annual conference in Richmond and at Randolph College's Symposium for Artists and Scholars. In each case, the students made the presentations, with each one taking a few moments to share a portion of the analysis.
Read more about the course here
CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations