Adding Grocery Stores Won’t Fix Food Deserts

Studies show food cost, consumer habits trump easier access to fresh foods.

May 11, 2015

NEW YORK – The New York Times wrote last week that in 2010 the Morrisania section of the Bronx was deemed a food desert, a low-income neighborhood with no nearby grocery store and few places where residents could buy fresh foods.

A New York City tax incentive program to bring healthy foods into underserved neighborhoods like Morrisania made possible the construction of a 17,000-square-foot supermarket, which the neighborhood welcomed with open arms, writes the news source. However, a recent study comparing shopping behavior in Morrisania with a similar neighborhood one mile away suggests that the eating habits of the neighborhood’s residents have not changed since the grocery opened in 2011.

“There were not a lot of things that really changed,” Brian Elbel, an author and associate professor of medicine at New York University, told the news source. “Consumption didn’t really change. Purchasing didn’t really change.”

The research sheds light on “a growing body of evidence that merely fixing food deserts will not do nearly as much to improve the health of poor neighborhoods” as city policymakers had hoped, writes the Times. “It seems intuitive that a lack of nearby healthy food can contribute to a poor diet. But merely adding a grocery store to a poor neighborhood, it appears, doesn’t make a very big difference. The cost of food — and people’s habits of shopping and eating — appear to be much more powerful than just convenience.”

While tackling the problem of food deserts is embraced by the federal government and many local governments, investments in new grocery stores and farmer’s markets for lower-income neighborhoods may not be paying in off in the form of healthier communities, suggest the news source.

A recent paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the buying habits of families who agreed to have their bar-coded food purchases scanned and measured, along with details about where they live and demographic characteristics. This data allowed the researchers to track what the consumers bought according to their income, education level and neighborhood. The research found that food preferences and costs topped the results, and that the education levels of the shoppers was much more predictive than income level. Although lower income families bought less healthy foods than affluent shoppers, there was a larger gap between families with and without a college education. Those results, according to the researchers, suggest that improving consumer diets will require both making healthier foods more accessible and affordable if people are going to going to change their perceptions and eating habits.

“When we put supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, people are buying the same food,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who participated in an Institute of Medicine review of food desert research in 2009. “They just get it cheaper.”

Like New York, research in Philadelphia shows similar “middling effects” from the addition of new grocery stores in food desert areas. While it’s possible that poverty may explain the shopping variations, the news source also suggests that cost is a big factor: “In general, fresher, healthier food is more expensive to buy than less healthy processed food. It also takes more time and resources to cook, and keeps for fewer days.”

Elbel, who studied the grocery store in the Bronx, told the news source that it’s difficult for public policy to help reduce obesity, although recent studies shouldn’t deter the work being done to alleviate food deserts. People still need to eat, regardless, but research is showing that improving access to fresh foods alone won’t solve the problem.