Do Supermarkets in Food Deserts Improve Health?

When you live in a city or suburban area, the idea of not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables may seem like a non-issue. Likely, there are grocery stores no more than a 10-minute drive away from wherever you are at any given time of day. However, in America’s food deserts, which include some rural places and low-income areas, getting your hands on fresh produce is a whole different story.

In the United States, 2.3 million people live in so-called food deserts, meaning they mostly have access to restaurants or convenience stores and delis offering packaged, processed foods. Even these locations are sometimes miles away from home. Supermarkets are few and far between, and especially in low-income regions, it proves difficult to reach such stores to stock up on fresh food.

Recently, the RAND Corporation (Research and Development) conducted a study that found opening a supermarket in such food deserts may be slightly beneficial to consumers’ health, but not for reasons expected. The study was conducted in a neighborhood near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over 1,300 people signed up for the study, most of whom were African-American women. This study is the first of its kind and should help in planning the opening of supermarkets in food deserts in the future.

Shelf in the supermarketParticipants did report an improvement in well-being and satisfaction as a result of having a grocery store nearby. Their consumption of calories decreased and so did their consumption of sugar and alcohol, as well as solid fats. Interestingly, obesity did not decline during the time period of the study, and consumption of fruits and vegetables actually went down rather than up. 

It stands to reason that simply making supermarkets available in food desert areas may not be enough. According to research, such stores often carry produce at higher prices, which makes them unaffordable for lower-income families who are trying to stretch their dollars. Even with access to fresh food, these families will often choose cheaper, denser foods to fill their stomachs. Additionally, a lack of nutritional education may leave consumers insecure about the options available to them.

Supermarkets are certainly a great start to encourage better eating behavior, but educating the public on proper nutrition through school or government-sponsored programs may be the way to go if we are going to see any significant changes. With almost 70 percent of American adults being overweight or obese, it is no surprise that our teens and children are not far behind.

Lead researchers of the RAND Corporation are optimistic, and their goal is to further investigate how access to healthy foods can be improved and to determine what else is needed to encourage the purchase and consumption of fresh food.

—The Alternative Daily 


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