Food and pharmacy deserts have been growing steadily over the last ten or so years, as unprofitable drug stores and supermarkets close, typically in lower income areas. The pandemic has accelerated these store closures, expanding the deserts in a time when people need food and healthcare the most. 

According to a 2010 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million Americans live in "food deserts", meaning they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban areas or more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas. 

A 2019 analysis by JAMA Internal Medicine shows that 1 in 8 pharmacies nationwide closed between 2009 and 2015. Many of the closures occurred in rural and poorer urban areas. Pharmacies get the lowest reimbursement rates for filling Medicaid prescriptions, so they're more likely to close stores in low-income neighborhoods and open pharmacies in wealthy areas. According to our data, there is just one Walgreens in Newburgh, New York, where the median household income is $37,900. There are two CVS locations.

The number of drugstores in New York City has declined by 20% since 2016, Axios reports. Walgreens closed 70 Duane Reades in the last year alone. Over the last five years, Rite Aid’s overall store count has decreased by 35%.

CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens locations are sparse throughout central and southwestern states, especially in counties and cities with lower household incomes. The median household income in McKinley, New Mexico is $49,148. The county has one Walgreens location. 

Researcher Dima Qato coined the term “pharmacy desert” in 2014, defining it as a place where people cannot fill a prescription within a half-mile of their homes (for low-income people without cars), and a mile for others. Qato found there were disproportionately more pharmacy deserts in Chicago’s segregated Black communities, as well as in low-income areas.

As of last month, Medicaid patients in Illinois (there are 400,000, according to the Chicago Tribune) can no longer fill their prescriptions at Walgreens. This happened when Aetna, which provides contracts with the state of Illinois to serve Medicaid recipients, dropped Walgreens as a provider. Aetna is owned by CVS, conveniently Walgreens’ main competitor.

Our data shows there are roughly 250 Walgreens locations in Illinois and only 157 CVS pharmacies. The Tribune notes that CVS "has no pharmacies in five key West Side neighborhoods.”

The median household income in Freeport, Illinois is $39,419. The city has two CVS locations. Dekalb, Illinois, where the median household income is $44,222, also has just two CVS locations.

Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford told the Tribune, "It's an attack not just on Black people, but on those that are struggling during the pandemic."

Of course, Medicaid policies like this aren't limited to Illinois. "Medicaid dictates where and where you can go fill your medication, and that leads to certain pharmacies having less patients in them, which leads to less profits, which leads to closures," Dima Qato told Axios.

City Median Household Income Count of CVS and Walgreens locations
Newport, TN $23,500 2
Central Falls, RI
Johnstown, PA
Logan, UT
Emporia, VA
Laurel, DE $33,362 1
Rexburg, ID
Highland Park, MI
Hazlehurst, MS
Hamilton, MT
East Cleveland, OH

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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