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Assessing the presence of e-food deserts in the UK

The e-food deserts index (EFDI) is a multi-dimensional composite index for GB which measures the extent to which neighbourhoods exhibit characteristics associated with food deserts across four key drivers of groceries accessibility:

· Proximity and density of grocery retail facilities

· Transport and accessibility

· Neighbourhood socio-economic and demographic characteristics

· E-commerce availability and propensity

It draws on a long interest in food security among Geographers and policy makers, most prominent in the late 1990s and early 2000s ‘urban food deserts’ debate. At the time it was argued that urban food deserts had been ‘abandoned’ by the major grocers, resulting in poor access to the larger format grocery stores which provided fresh, healthy and affordable food. Many of these neighbourhoods were some of the most deprived in England and Wales and were located within inner city areas where residents faced considerable financial and practical (e.g. access to transport) barriers to accessing food store provision.

The EFDI incorporates new indicators of online groceries (home delivery) provision and propensity to engage with online groceries, the latter drawn from an existing CDRC data resource, the 2018 Internet User Classification. In addition to urban deprivation, it highlights a new driver of inequalities in access to groceries, termed ‘e-food deserts’ – remote and rural neighbourhoods which suffer the dual disadvantage of comparatively poor access to physical retail opportunities alongside limited provision of online groceries.

The EFDI is constructed at a neighbourhood level using Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in England and Wales and Data Zones (DZs) in Scotland. Input data are drawn from a range of sources including the Census and existing indicators of deprivation and accessibility at the neighbourhood level. It also incorporates a number of custom-derived indicators of food store accessibility, consumer behaviours and availability of groceries e-commerce drawn from our own modelling.

The index can be viewed on CDRC Maps (England and Wales; Scotland) and is available to download for researchers and policy makers to attach to their own data. The research team would be very keen to understand how the index has been used in subsequent applications.

The research team have used the index as input to wider ongoing work into geographical inequalities in e-groceries provision as part of the first GB wide assessment of the geography of online groceries provision. Whilst they found that online groceries coverage is generally excellent at the household level, they note considerable inequalities in online groceries provision between urban and rural areas. Whilst online groceries could afford considerable potential to improve retail access in rural areas, inequalities in provision are currently driving new notions of contemporary food deserts.

Andy Newing, Associate Professor in Applied Spatial Analysis at the University of Leeds, who led this study, said:

“These inequalities in online groceries delivery availability are driven by the challenges of providing services within out most remote and rural areas, alongside the predominantly urban and suburban nature of investment in e-groceries by retailers.”