Food deserts– a term that represents geographical areas that do not access to fresh, healthy foods due to the lack of supermarkets within travel distance.
For many years, it has been understood that there is a causal relationship between availability of healthy food options and poverty. Wealthy areas have three times as many supermarkets as poor neighbourhoods and thus, low-income communities are limited by the amount of food choices they have and what they can afford. The US Department of Agriculture finds that there around 30 million people living in welfare that are more than a mile away from their closest grocery store, who have an annual income of $5,000 to $20,000. Food retailers tend to avoid these areas due to the unattractive return on investment and high development costs. As a result, these food deserts contain numerous convenient stores and fast food options (see picture on the right) that sell foods that are high in salt, fat, and sugar, resulting in malnourishment, diabetes, and many other illnesses. People who are limited to these options consume around 200 more calories per meal and gain 6 more pounds per year. As a result, poor communities are at high risk of these diseases and are unable to break free of this cycle.
Hundreds of categorical programs have been developed to help combat this food desert problem through the use of cash and in-kind transfers. For an example in city of Baltimore, The Aetna foundation, The United Way, and The Wal-Mart Foundation drop off online grocery orders at a central point in the city that is paid for by the Baltimore health department. The state of Ohio provides cash incentives to grocery stores that are built in poorer communities. Additionally, subsidies and coupons are given to people in welfare communities to purchase fresh produce for less.
However, I would like to argue that increasing access and convenience of grocery stores with fresh food does not and will not change people’s consumption habits. A study in Philadelphia was conducted to measure the impact that a new supermarket had on purchasing behaviour. The result? They found that despite the fact that people knew about the easier access to fresh produce, there were no changes in their consumption patterns. An article by the Atlantic writes, “When it comes to nutrition access, the focus should be on poverty, not grocery store location”. The article argues that bad diets are not attributed to the external environment but a result of the collapse of income on the poor combined with the poor education of healthy foods. A 2017 report done by the North Caroline State University found that the biggest variable that limits an adequate diet is financial resources rather than proximity to healthy foods. Studies in the past have focused on the actual food desert rather than the people that live in these areas. As they began to focus on the people, they realized that even though they lived far away from a supermarket and did not have access to a car, they still made the effort to travel outside the neighbourhood to shop at supermarkets with lower price tags. This results in infrequent grocery trips meaning that fresh produce is not purchased and consumed often due to its easy expiry. Therefore, the sole solution should no longer be about building grocery stores, as that proves to have a non-sizeable impact on consumption behaviours. Food deserts are much more complex problems as factors like low wages, education, preparation of meals, and high cost of ingredients are also significant attributors to this problem.
As a result, I believe that there needs to be a combination of solutions that produce a synergistic effect in changing consumption behaviours. Building supermarkets is great, but it will not accomplish anything without other complimentary initiatives. PBS states that the rest of the solution involves developing effective policies for economic initiatives, such as taxes or subsidies for healthy foods. There must also be in-store marketing techniques to promote the purchase of healthy foods, as awareness is the first step to behavioural change. Additionally, they must develop health education programs to teach the skills needed to buy and cook healthy foods as these skills will effectively translate to making better in-store decisions. Access to healthy foods is only half the battle; the other half must be executed in conjunction with the first in order to make an impactful difference.