Money, not access, key to resident food choices in 'food deserts'

March 14, 2017

A new study from North Carolina State University and Campbell University finds that, while access to healthy foods is a significant challenge, the biggest variable limiting diet choices in so-called "food deserts" is limited financial resources.

Food deserts are areas that are far from supermarkets, which typically have a greater variety of nutritious foods at lower prices than those found in the corner stores more common in food deserts.

"There's been a lot of attention to food deserts in urban areas, and how those deserts may affect public health - but little attention has been paid to how the people who actually live in those areas feel they've been affected," says Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology and co-author of a paper describing the work. "We wanted to get input from the residents themselves."

The researchers took a two-pronged approach to addressing the issue.

They conducted an assessment of a neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., that the USDA has defined as a food desert. As part of a class, undergraduates mapped and surveyed all of the stores in the neighborhood, as well as the four nearest supermarkets.

They found that, while supermarkets offered a wide range of fruits and vegetables, neighborhood stores offered little or no fresh produce. What's more, staple foods and healthier options that were available in the neighborhood cost, on average, 25 percent more than they did at supermarkets.

The researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with 42 neighborhood residents. The interviews focused on food habits, including how people shopped for food.

"We found that price was the most important factor in determining where most people shopped," says Lillian MacNell, an assistant professor of public health at Campbell and lead author of the paper. "So, even though most people lived more than a mile from a supermarket - and half didn't have a car - they still traveled outside of the neighborhood to shop at supermarkets."

"This shouldn't be counter-intuitive, but it does upend a lot of the literature on food deserts, which has assumed that most people simply shop at the nearest store," Bowen says.

However, traveling outside the neighborhood to shop has consequences.

People without cars, for example, often reported taking a bus to reach a supermarket, and then hiring a cab to get home. This increased shopping time and expense.

"And, because stores aren't nearby, many study respondents said they only shop once a month," MacNell says. "Therefore, they can't buy a lot of produce. If they bought more than they could eat in a few days or a week, it would go bad."

Immigrants who participated in the study faced an additional challenge, reporting that they had to spend more time shopping in order to find the specific foods they were looking for.

"This study tells us that access to supermarkets does matter - people reported that they would eat more produce if they could shop more often," Bowen says. "However, access is not the biggest factor affecting what people eat. The biggest factor is that many people simply don't have enough money to spend on food."

"So, while efforts to improve physical access to healthy foods are valuable, they don't address the fundamental challenge of affordability," MacNell says.

The paper, "Black and Latino Urban Food Desert Residents' Perceptions of Their Food Environment and Factors That Influence Food Shopping Decisions," is published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. The paper was co-authored by Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at NC State, and Annie Hardison-Moody, an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State. The work was done with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under grant number 2011-68001-30103.
-end-


North Carolina State University

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) http://www.cmaj.ca/lookup/doi/10.1503/cmaj.200852.

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.