‘Real’ versus ‘mental’ food deserts from the consumer perspective – concepts and quantitative methods applied to rural areas of Germany

Ulrich Jürgens


Developments in food retail in Germany have for decades tended to lead to ever larger retail units, the filling of these units with ever broader and deeper product ranges, and an increasingly oligopolistic market dominated by chain stores. However, as the large chain stores only choose the ‘best possible’ sites according to population density, absolute purchasing power and transport networks, there has been a dramatic thinning out of food-retail facilities in large, particularly rural areas. Has this made it possible to detect supply gaps or, more polemically expressed, food deserts? The term ‘food deserts’, in particular, has achieved a certain amount of acclaim in the Anglo-American context since the 2000s. However, the concept has neither been transferred to nor empirically verified for the German context. In this paper quantitative and qualitative methods are applied to investigate the situation in the rural regions of the most northerly state of Germany (Schleswig-Holstein), in order that food deserts no longer be understood only as ‘real’, tangible and bounded patterns arising from the thinning out of infrastructure but rather as cognitive, perceived patterns (mental food deserts). It is suggested that customer (groups) have long-term and varied shopping predispositions so that diverse groups no longer perceive the loss of supply options and actually create local supply gaps for others through their shopping behaviour. Cluster, discriminant and network analyses are used to complement an inventory of tangible retail facilities with ‘lived’ mental attitudes and shopping behaviour, distinctly broadening the present understanding of food deserts.


food deserts, local shopping, food retail, cognition, network, rural areas, Germany

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