Supporting Communities Beyond Energy: The Intersection of Food Deserts and Energy Efficiency

Posted May 16, 2012 By Lisa Qu Dorsey Kaufmann


The ILLUME team led a study to support the launch of SoCalREN’s new Food Desert Energy Efficiency Equity (FDEEE) program. The FDEEE program aims to promote energy efficiency and healthy food access by providing energy-efficient refrigeration retrofits to corner stores in targeted areas throughout Southern California.

About the Research

ILLUME conducted discovery research, spatial data analysis and mapping, interviews with corner store owners, and peer organization research to inform the implementation of the FDEEE program. Through these research activities, the team synthesized publicly available data and primary sources to highlight how the FDEEE program can best support disadvantaged communities with limited access to healthy foods.

The FDEEE program defines targeted areas as “hard-to-reach, disadvantaged, and/or underserved individuals, households, businesses, and communities” in its 2024 implementation plan. Across the energy industry, professionals use different terms to describe communities that may have limited clean energy access and disproportionately face the negative impacts of climate change like the ones targeted by the FDEEE program. Target communities may use different language to describe themselves. In this case study, we refer to program target areas as “disadvantaged communities” to capture the myriad of indicators related to marginalization.

The Challenge

The FDEEE program is an energy efficiency intervention, as the program funds the installation of energy efficient refrigeration in corner stores, neighborhood stores, bodegas, convenience stores, or other small grocers in disadvantaged communities. The program also has broader community goals. The FDEEE program hopes to promote healthy food habits in communities facing food insecurity by providing corner stores with healthy food options to stock in their new refrigerators. In the long term, the FDEEE program wants to establish trust within the communities it serves, enabling it to provide further education and support on energy efficiency and food access.

The FDEEE program understands that before it can establish trust in a community, the program needs to first deepen its understanding of that community. The ILLUME team conducted research to better understand the communities that will be served by the program. They found many factors that will impact the FDEEE program’s ability to meet its goal of improving healthy food access in communities with limited food access. While energy burden does impact food access, it is not the only factor to consider. Food insecurity has been shaped by historical and systemic factors, such as race, access to government resources, and wealth.

Our Findings

We found that activists and community members speak about access to food in different ways. Some prefer not to use the term food desert, with critics arguing that it does not properly capture how systemic issues contribute to inadequate food access. Food activists and academics have proposed a variety of alternative terms, including “food apartheid” or “food oppression,” but there is no universally agreed-upon alternative. Similarly, many of the corner store owners we interviewed would not describe their communities as food deserts. As a result, we recommended avoiding using the term ‘food desert’ in program marketing. Instead, we suggested using more accessible language, such as highlighting how the program can help store owners with stocking and sourcing healthy food. Our team used what we learned from talking to local storeowners to inform our spatial data analysis. We considered what store owners highlighted in these direct conversations when creating visual maps that show how other factors interact with food insecurity in target communities.

Our team used the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) data, as well as data from other peer organizations and government departments, to build interactive maps that illustrate the connection between energy burden and various factors related to food insecurity. Through our spatial data analysis, we found that 27% of the census tracts in SoCalREN’s region are classified as low-income/low-access (LILA) by the USDA, which means that the tract was both low-income and that at least a third of its inhabitants are located between one-half mile and 20 miles—depending on urbanicity—from the nearest supermarket, or low-access; we used this as a proxy to identify food deserts in this study. Roughly 8% of all census tracts in the SoCalREN territory are both LILA and are in an area where households experience a high energy burden. Energy burden refers to the percentage households spend on energy expenses out of their total income. As such, stores in those census tracts are also likely to experience a high energy burden.

We used these maps to identify corner stores that could benefit the most from the FDEEE program in Los Angeles County (where the FDEEE program will first launch in 2024).

We interviewed corner store owners identified in our spatial data analysis. They provided valuable context for how community members feel about food access in their communities and feedback on how the FDEEE program can support them. Some had little to say about challenges with food access in their communities initially, but identified barriers as the researchers followed up with probing questions. This might be because food access is a complex subject with many different associated factors. The terms “access” and “healthy food” are abstract, complex, and can have different meanings to different individuals, so it was sometimes helpful to narrow down the conversation to specific aspects of food access to get store owners to share more. Additionally, some individuals may not feel comfortable discussing complex issues within their communities with outside researchers at first, highlighting the need to build trusting relationships with potential FDEEE program participants.

Further, many of the corner store owners we interviewed spoke Spanish, and USDA data shows that 51% of those living in food deserts in the SoCalREN service territory speak Spanish, compared to 36% in the service territory overall. Providing marketing resources and program support in Spanish will be important in these communities.

To address community food access with a program like FDEEE, program implementers must first build trust within the community. We recommended that SoCalREN continue to work to gain meaningful community feedback and develop community relationships. One suggestion for the FDEEE program outreach team was to organize town halls and work with local food banks, churches, and other community-based organizations (CBOs) to learn more about the history and needs of the community.

The Takeaway

Our findings speak to the complexity of food insecurity in the U.S., further demonstrating the importance of leveraging multiple types of data sources when designing energy efficiency interventions for communities with limited food access.

When designing programs intended to benefit communities, it is important to continue to have open communication with community members. As the interviews we conducted with corner store owners demonstrate, community members provide invaluable feedback on how a program like this can best support their needs. Speaking with community members and corner store owners can also help develop trust between communities and program administrators. In this case, the FDEEE program aims to develop long-term relationships with store owners, which may encourage them to participate in future energy efficiency offerings and share information about the program with their peers.

The interactive maps we created demonstrate the intersection between demographic factors, energy burden, and food access. The FDEEE program team can use these maps in the future to identify areas of interest for the program based on conversations with community members and program goals. Overall, these maps demonstrate the importance of considering non-energy, systemic factors when designing energy efficiency programs for communities. Using similar methods to conduct spatial analysis could help other programs identify additional areas of need in the communities they want to serve. Having a deeper understanding of all the factors that impact a target community will help program administrators better serve community members and overcome barriers to energy efficiency interventions.