Posted in Behind the News

Hungry for supermarkets: Data-journalism tools support AP analysis

, by Paul Colford

A group of major food retailers have fallen short in their promise to open or expand 1,500 grocery or convenience stores in and around neighborhoods without supermarkets by 2016. It was part of an initiative led by first lady Michelle Obama.

In addition, The Associated Press revealed today, in the past four years the nation’s largest chains have built new supermarkets in only a fraction of the neighborhoods where they’re needed most.

In this Wednesday, July 15, 2015 photo, Pablo Salazar shops for fruits and vegetables in the Fresh Stop bus, a mobile market, at the Taft Community Center, in Orlando, Fla. The Fresh Stop brings fresh fruits and vegetables to communities with no supermarkets. The nation’s largest grocery chains have built new supermarkets in only a fraction of the neighborhoods where they’re needed most, according to an analysis of federal food stamp data by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The striking analysis resulted yet again from AP’s smart use of data-journalism tools with an eye toward delivering state-by-state data that our member news organizations could further localize for their readers and broadcast audiences.

Mike Schneider, a data journalist based in Orlando, Florida, wrote the story, working with South Enterprise Editor Joe Danborn. Data journalist Dan Kempton in Phoenix assisted in the data sharing and producer Youyou Zhou built the interactive.

Schneider and Danborn answered questions about how the analysis came together.


Q: What was the starting point for the analysis?
A: We used a healthy-eating initiative championed by Michelle Obama as the jumping-off point for the project. As part of that initiative, a handful of food retailers had committed to building or expanding new stores in and around neighborhoods without fresh produce and meat options. The first lady’s group keeps track of those companies’ progress, and it hasn’t been good.

What we wanted to do was take it beyond those few companies to see whether the grocery industry as a whole was choosing to do business in the areas where it’s needed most.

Q: How did AP’s data journalism know-how come to bear?

A: First, we got our hands on a U.S. Department of Agriculture database of stores that are qualified to accept food stamps, which includes all the major national and regional chains. We identified stores that had opened up between October 2011 (shortly after the first lady’s coalition made its commitment) and March 2015. Using the mapping tool ArcMap, we then determined which stores were built in census tracts that USDA identifies as food deserts.

We broke down the blended database we’d created into state-by-state data for customers to localize, and used it as the basis of our interactive map.

Q: What were the biggest surprises?

A: Beyond the numbers for some individual grocery chains, we were struck most by the extent to which “dollar stores” had taken over: They made up two-thirds of the new, large-retailer stores in food deserts. Since most don’t sell fresh produce or meat, they do little to solve the problem.

That’s something that advocates had told us they’d seen anecdotally, but seeing the actual numbers proved they were onto something.