The Food Desert Controversy Continues

The Lempert Report
May 22, 2017

A new RAND Corporation study challenges notions that building supermarkets in “food deserts” can help the nation eat better.

Studying people who live in areas considered to be food deserts, researchers found that more frequent shopping at convenience and neighborhood stores and being younger, male, without a college degree and receiving government food assistance were associated with greater intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars and discretionary fats. Being older, male and having a college degree were associated with eating more fruits and vegetables.  

“Our findings suggest that interventions that focus on modifying the food retail environment by opening more stores that sell healthy food will have relatively little impact on reducing consumption of unhealthy food,” said Christine Vaughan, lead author of the study and a behavioral scientist at RAND, the nonprofit research organization. “Instead, strategies designed to modify the choices people make about food stand a better chance of reducing consumption of unhealthy foods.” 

One of the most important findings of the study was that the researchers found that nearly all store types emphasized unhealthy food over healthy food and they then scored the venues based on product placement of unhealthy versus healthy foods. Unhealthy stores were those that had unhealthy food dominating the view from the main entrance and had more displays promoting unhealthy food rather than healthy food. 

The unhealthy category included convenience stores, neighborhood stores and dollar stores. Moderately unhealthy stores included discount grocery stores, supercenters and wholesale clubs. Healthy stores included full-service supermarkets, specialty grocery stores, and fruit and vegetable shops.   

The Christian Science Monitor’s recent column on food deserts found another twist that researchers are discovering: Just because a grocery moves in doesn't mean that people's eating habits change. In 2004, when it launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, Pennsylvania led the way in eliminating food deserts, using tax breaks and other subsidies to encourage grocers to locate in poor neighborhoods. They go on to say that things really got rolling in 2010 when the federal government created the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. But a 2014 study of a Philadelphia food desert found no change in consumption patterns or weight loss once a supermarket moved in.   

I applaud what Lauren Vague, business development manager at UpLift Solutions, a nonprofit consulting firm in Westville, N.J started by Jeff Brown is quoted as saying 

“I don’t call them food deserts; I call them resource deserts, because it's not just fresh food, these communities need everything that aims to strengthen underserved communities. They need an employer to create jobs. They need an anchor to draw shoppers so that the local business district can grow.”