In food deserts, cost could be harming more than location

In food deserts, cost could be harming more than location
July 27, 2017

Whether you follow the food pyramid or MyPlate, a Paleo diet or a Mediterranean one, whether you are trying to lose weight or bulk up, fresh fruits and vegetables are a cornerstone to any nutritious diet.

MyPlate Food DiagramThere are, however, places all over the United States where getting fresh produce is a challenge. These “food deserts” as they are known, pop up in either cities where there is not a supermarket within a mile and many people do not have access to cars, or in rural areas without a grocery store within 10 miles. That lack of access makes fast food and other unhealthy choices the easiest—sometimes the only—practical choice, leading to higher incidences of obesity and other chronic diseases.

Tens of millions of Americans live in food deserts, and plenty of emphasis has been placed in both research and government programs on how to increase the access to fresh produce in food deserts. New research from North Carolina State University and Campbell University shows that the cost of fresh food, more than the trouble reaching it, could be the problem for those living in food deserts.

Using surveys of food options and in-depth interviews with residents of a food desert in Raleigh, the researchers found that while residents are often willing to go out of their way to reach a supermarket, the cost of the fresh food is always a deterrent. The study was published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition.

The researchers, led by Campbell public health professor and lead author of the study Lillian MacNell, focused on one specific neighborhood in Raleigh. They interviewed 42 neighborhood residents about what they ate and how, when, where and how often they shopped for food.

The respondents reported that they did have trouble obtaining fresh produce, but they were often willing to go out of their way to get it. Half of the participants in the interviews reported not having access to a car, but many of those still said they would find a way to travel the mile to reach a supermarket, either by bus or taxi. Despite the inconveniences, and the lengths they would go to shop, the interviewees largely reported that the cost of groceries was their main concern when shopping.

Food Deserts in the United StatesThe researchers also employed undergraduate students to note the produce selection and prices of produce in every corner store in the neighborhood and the closest four supermarkets. The small stores in the community would often have some produce, but it cost 25 percent more, on average, than produce in the supermarkets making the cost issue worse for residents of the Raleigh community.

These findings do not mean that access to fruits and vegetables is not a major issue in food deserts. Some of the survey respondents said that they would have to take a taxi home from the supermarket in order to get all their groceries home, imposing another cost on shoppers who do not own their own car. Also, shoppers that did not have their own transportation sometimes would only shop once a month because of the hassle, limiting how much produce they could buy because it could spoil.

Still, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives focused on getting more supermarkets into these food deserts. And as NC State sociologist and co-author of the study Sarah Bowen says, most research on food deserts is based on the assumption that shoppers in food deserts will always go to the closest store. So this study shows that programs like SNAP that help with the cost of food can be powerful tools in getting nutritious food into low-income communities.

This study only covered 42 people in one city, so the participants in this study may not have the same concerns as people in other parts of the country. But their overwhelming response that cost is a major deterrent in getting fruits and vegetables could provide helpful context when policymakers attempt to address the issue of food deserts, and the millions of people that live in them.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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