Can Big Stores Really Help Food Deserts?

The Lempert Report
November 03, 2015

Big stores are filling up food desserts, but are they making shoppers any healthier?

Retail giant Walmart recently announced that it had surpassed a goal they set five years ago: to open at least 275 stores in food deserts by 2016. The retailer’s plan was a part of their, "healthier food initiative," launched with the First Lady in 2011.  Since then, Walmart has been appearing in lower-income urban areas where grocery stores are not so common. 

But is this plan helping the local consumers actually be healthy? According to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Americans' junk food calories increasingly come from big box stores rather than traditional grocers. University of North Carolina researchers looked at an analysis of Nielson Homescan data and found that the share of calories from packaged food products purchased at mass merchandisers, convenience stores and warehouse clubs nearly doubled from 2000 to 2012, rising from 23 percent to 40 percent. In addition, the packaged foods people bought at big box and convenience stores were, on average, higher in sugar, sodium and saturated fat than those bought at traditional grocers, the researchers found.

So it seems the problem may be that while big stores like Walmart do have some healthier grocery items available, the large selection of less healthy, packaged foods are what’s winning shoppers over.

For supermarkets and other retailers this information if good to remember that sometimes just the food access is not enough. Consumers will often go for packaged, convenient options more-so than healthy. How can stores do more help people be healthy? By offering tips and nutrition information on the benefits of some foods over others and by promoting – through displays and better prices the more healthful products that are available.