New York CNN Business  — 

If you’re like most Americans, you probably think of going to the supermarket and stocking up on groceries as a normal thing, and you take it for granted.

But 60-plus years of corporate strategies, white flight and stereotypes about black Americans have made it significantly harder for many black people to access a supermarket than it is for most white people, according to leaders of big cities across the country as well as food policy advocates, historians and urban studies experts.

Supermarkets have chased white, suburban customers at the expense of black communities in urban areas, these experts say. Some have described large grocers’ avoidance of predominately black areas as “supermarket redlining,” evoking post-New Deal federal policies designed to prevent black home ownership in white neighborhoods and promote segregation.

The consequence is that for people living in many urban, black neighborhoods, groceries are harder to access and often more expensive. Healthy food is also harder to come by.

“National and regional supermarkets are typically full-service, with an extensive variety and assortment of food at competitive prices. Some even have pharmacies or minute clinics,” said Anne Palmer, director of the Food Communities & Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “By bypassing black or low-income communities, they exacerbated the problem of easy access to healthy food.”

Supermarkets expanded their presence during the second half of the twentieth century as the suburbs boomed.

On average, in the 50 largest US metro areas, roughly 17.7% of predominately black neighborhoods had limited access to supermarkets, compared to 7.6% of largely white neighborhoods, according to an analysis conducted for CNN Business by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit community development organization. The racial disparities persisted across income lines, according to the analysis, which used a combination of 2016 supermarket location and 2016 Census data.

Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has also found that predominantly black neighborhoods have less access to grocery stores: “At equal levels of poverty, black census tracts had the fewest supermarkets [and] white tracts had the most,” Hopkins researchers found in their 2014 analysis of census and food retailer data.

Supermarkets expanded their presence mainly in the suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century as a result of white flight. In the 1980s, top grocery chains merged and the industry consolidated. That resulted in fewer store locations in cities as the surviving chains closed overlapping locations. Even today, supermarket chains have been reluctant to expand in minority neighborhoods. Some local leaders claim that’s in part because of stereotypes of black communities as poor and crime-ridden.

Supermarket chains “have a demographic location profile that prioritizes communities that are not low income and not African American,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that opposes concentrated economic power in communities. “The outcome has a racial bias.”

In a statement, Heather Garlich, spokesperson for FMI, a trade group for the food retail industry, said: “Market, economic and demographic factors influence a company’s decision to establish a store. Grocery stores require an adequate customer base and economic support to remain viable; real estate costs and availability are significant factors to determine where and how a store is built.”

Supermarkets work closely with community leaders, elected officials and other groups to help bring stores to neighborhoods, she said.

Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, said he struggled for years to convince a grocery store to come to a predominantly black area in the city.

But some critics say supermarkets have intentionally avoided black neighborhoods.

“We saw supermarket redlining in black neighborhoods,” where chain supermarkets either closed down, relocated to suburban areas or chose not to open in neighborhoods with high black populations, said Debarchana Ghosh, assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s department of geography.

Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016, said as a member of the city council he spent years trying to bring a grocery store to a largely black area of Philadelphia by offering tax incentives. (ShopRite eventually agreed to come in 2007.)

“We went to virtually every national grocery retailer in our region,” Nutter said. “White people don’t think black people spend money, and they weren’t willing to invest in predominately black neighborhoods.”

The rise of suburban supermarkets

As mostly white residents left cities for the suburbs during the back half of the twentieth century — spurred by racial unrest across cities in the 1960s — self-service supermarkets and big-box chains saw an opportunity.

Grocery store profit margins are razor thin, normally in the range of 1% to 2%. Companies saw the opportunity for greater profits in the largely white suburbs, said Joshua Davis, a historian at the University of Baltimore and author of “From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.”

Supermarket chains relocated or built new, larger stores, with wider aisles to stock more food on shelves than they previously had, on cheap, undeveloped suburban land with big parking lots.

“Supermarkets became the most common source for grocery shopping during a time of rapid suburbanization, and their car-dependent large footprint format is designed for suburban sprawl,” said Jerry Shannon, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s department of geography. “Supermarkets were created with suburban residents in mind.”