With Ambition and Walking Shoes, Students Catalogue Organic and Local Food Availability Throughout Manhattan

Carolyn Dimitri, visiting associate professor of food studies and an applied economist, is interested in the question of whether access to local and organic food influences consumer demand. To find out the answer, she and her graduate students have embarked on a yearlong study to assess the availability of local and organic food at groceries, delis, outdoor food carts, and other establishments that sell fresh food in Manhattan.

Using a simple data collection sheet, students from the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health’s Food Systems classes will canvass every Manhattan neighborhood to note whether the store sells organic or local food from a variety of categories, including dairy, produce, and meat. Dimitri will analyze the data to create an index for each store, ranging from 0 to 100, that captures the availability of organic or local food.

“This is a vast undertaking, given the large number of stores in Manhattan,” Dimitri says. “Fortunately, my students have responded with great enthusiasm, and have offered useful suggestions about the best way to divide Manhattan in sections to facilitate the data collection process. Last month, Krystal Ford and I collected data on store types and in Inwood. We identified about 50 stores in our assigned area. I was rather surprised to see the odd mix of products carried in the majority of the stores.”

The class’ research will also shed light on whether demand for organic food is greater in higher income neighborhoods or in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of stores that sell such foods.

“Research suggest that consumption of organic food tends to be a function of how well educated a consumer is, as opposed to his or her income level,” Dimitri says. ” The problem with estimating a consumer’s demand for such organic and local foods has been the difficulty of measuring access.”

The data collected will provide a more accurate measure of access to organic and local food, that should allow Dimitri to improve existing models of consumer demand for these products.

Photo: Carolyn Dimitri and students reviewing data collection techniques outside a store on University Place. From left to right: Hi’ilei Hobart, Carolyn Dimitri, Shoshana Romer, Daniel Del Coro, and Aaron Zweig.