A person stands next to a Church's Chicken restaurant on July 24, 2008 in the South Los Angeles area of Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Increased attention on the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States has made terms like “food deserts” more commonplace. There’s a greater understanding that in many neighborhoods, fast-food restaurants are plentiful; but healthy, affordable food is not.

In a recent study, a team of researchers found that many African-Americans face even more challenging circumstances in their neighborhoods. In New York City, they found that many necessary retail resources were either non-existent, scarce or required traveling some distance. Those resources include national and local chain stores that provide products and services for healing, hygiene, work and play.

Redlining, the discriminatory practice of refusing to lend money or extend credit to a potential homebuyer because of their race or income was outlawed nearly fifty years ago by the Fair Housing Act.

Retail redlining, on the other hand, is when retailers, especially chain stores, choose not to serve certain areas based on their ethnic-minority composition rather than on whether they will make a profit.

But there is no law against redlining by stores, despite the impact it has upon neighborhoods.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists New York City as the most densely populated major city in the U.S., with as many as 800 languages spoken. It is one of the largest, most diverse cities in the world, yet when people return to their homes at night, they live in highly segregated neighborhoods.

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, PhD, associate professor of Human Ecology and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and her colleagues studied the location of resources essential for daily living across 5,730 census blocks in the city’s five boroughs. The group’s study, Retail Redlining in New York City: Racialized Access to Day-to-Day Retail Resources, was recently published in the Journal of Urban Health.

The researchers studied the locations of stores from a number of categories, such as pharmacies, clothing, shoe and sporting goods stores, bookstores, electronics, educational and professional supply stores, and fitness clubs and video game stores. Wherever possible, they examined more than one retail chain for each category.

The researchers took population characteristics such as household income, population density, and subway ridership into consideration because they often influence store locations. After accounting for these variables Kwate says, “In predominantly black areas, access to medicines, medical supplies, clothing, office and household supplies is compromised. On the other hand, as the percent of black people increased, so did the availability of food that is harmful to health.”

For instance, three pharmacy chains were included in the study. One of those had the second highest number of outlets throughout the city of any store in the study. Despite this, residents in black neighborhoods still had to travel farther to reach one.

Retailers often argue that they have limited stores in black neighborhoods because demand is low. But common measures of demand rely in part on surveys that ask whether people patronize certain store brands. Brands that black neighborhoods are unlikely to have. The result is that black neighborhoods appear to have lower demand than may be the case.

Kwate found that even when accounting for demand, the percentage of black residents determines whether a neighborhood has equal or unequal access to a variety of stores.

While the focus was on whether retail redlining existed in black neighborhoods, Kwate wondered what that data would show for the percentage of white residents, using the same models. One significant difference was that several of the fast food restaurants that were easily accessible in black neighborhoods were farther away in white neighborhoods.

Kwate says more research is needed to determine the definitive affect that retail redlining may have on health. However, several published studies point to the stress residents face and the limited choices they’re left with. Considered a captive audience, they can either travel, or shop at the Mom and Pop stores that populate their neighborhoods, which have been criticized for having limited selections, inferior products, and marked up prices.

“It is not our contention that the proliferation of large retail chains is always unconditionally to the benefit of black neighborhoods. But redlining by large chains broadly categorizes black communities as unwanted markets, which has implications for future disinvestment. Retail redlining reflects and perpetuates inequalities that have important social and health consequences,” Kwate says.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health indicates racial and ethnic health disparities result in a higher mortality rate among these groups than the majority population. African-Americans live sicker and die younger than others due to disparities, some of which are tied to segregation.

It is unclear what role retail redlining plays in those sad outcomes.

Leslie-Anne Frank is a writer and public relations/diversity communications consultant. Follow her on Twitter: @L_AFrank.