Targeted Universalism Step 2: Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal

a photograph of a semi-urban city. multi-colored train cars stretch from the upper-left to lower-right of the picture. the train is mostly boxcars, though there is a black tanker in the middle. the tracks run next to a few buildings on one side. they’re all about five stories tall. on the other side of the track is a bike/run path that curves slightly to the left. a single cyclist is on this side of the tracks. if there were a grocery store in one of those buildings, that person would not be in a food desert. but they’d have a pretty dangerous trip if they wanted to eat something. i was watching a train video while i wrote this and decided to just go with it.

Awhile ago I wrote about targeted universalism. There are five steps to creating a plan. I’m using the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject.

Welcome back to the series! This post’s focus is on the second step of creating a targeted universalism framework. In Step 1, I established this as my goal:

Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

Now that we have a universal goal, we have to assess how close the general population is to that goal. A big note here: the general performance measure is a starting point, not a baseline. It can help us understand exactly how much of the general population we need to move. We’ll later compare the relative performance of specific groups to the general population. Again, not as a way to close the gap between groups, but to create distinct strategies so each group can achieve 100%.

performance measures

In step 1, I created a universal goal using three factors: wealth, dietary needs, and location. I don’t have the data handy to create a true baseline, but I can imagine how I’d do it. I’ll first start with location.


The location part of our universal goal is that food is available within a 15 minute walk of every person. I can approximate this using the USDA’s data on food deserts. In 2009 they published Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences (pdf).” This report popularized the concept of food deserts as a measure of food access. For urban areas, a census tract is a “food desert” if the center of the tract is more than 1 mile from a large grocery store. The food desert concept has its flaws. Small produce stands don’t count as supermarkets but offer fresh produce in that area. And a mile as the crow flies doesn’t consider that people may have to take a more circuitous route to get there.

For rural areas, a food desert means a grocery store or supermarket is more than 10 miles away. Most people can’t walk 10 miles one way to buy groceries, but this measure is for the general population. In the same way, the average human can walk a mile in 15-20 minutes. But that doesn’t mean everyone can get there in that amount of time. Here again we encounter a limitation that we can address in Step 4.

The USDA found that 23.5 million people live in a low-income area defined as a food desert. The population of the u.s. in 2009 was 306.8M. That means 7.7% of the country must travel more than 1 mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) to shop for groceries.

Dietary Needs

Having a grocery store nearby is important, but what if the store doesn’t carry the food you need to eat? For example, the Food Empowerment Project conducted a study in Santa Clara County, CA. Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight (pdf) studied food access in low-income and communities of color. They found that grocery stores offered less variety in low-income communities.

Non-organic produce was available at 33.7% of the high-income retailers they studied. In low-income neighborhoods, only 17.3% of stores carried fresh produce. For those of us (me again) seeking non-dairy products, 0.0% of stores in low-income areas carried these items. In high-income areas, 6.1% of stores carried these items. We must address these disparities as we start to understand specific communities’ needs.


The data I started to gather for the first two factors are important for sure. But there’s of course a greater gateway to accessing the food we want to eat. People need to be able to afford the food. Access alone is not enough. I’ll refer to another USDA study, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts (pdf). The earlier study found that, on average, low-income and minority populations were closer to supermarkets than higher income individuals and non-Hispanic Whites.” If you can’t afford to buy food, why would it matter how close you are to it?

The USDA defines a household as food insecure if they have limited or uncertain access to food. In Washington, 849K people are food insecure, or 11.5% of the total state population. Nationally, 35.2M people are defined as food insecure.


So with this information, I can cobble together some performance measures. If this were a real framework, we could create a more complete performance measure. But for now, we have a good idea of where we are as a society. 23 million people have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.

We have a lot of work to do! Step 3 is coming soon.