October 6, 2012 by yuiweng
Food desert, a simple and memorable term, successfully caught the attention to policy makers, public medias, funders and academic. It may not be that of a huge success if the researchers use “inequitable access” at the beginning. In both urban and rural areas, food desert are all over US. It usually locates at low-income area, and sometimes ironically in places that used to grow food. At Wake County, North Carolina, 10 food deserts are identified because of limited physical (distant and public transportation to grocery stores) and financial (a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher) accesses. It is worth noticing that many local farms and also the North Carolina State farmers market are within the food desert area; meaning that the sources of fresh produce is not of a big problem but the distribution of these locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Even though lacking healthy food access seems to be a reasonable explanation for low fruits and vegetable consumption, the question is, does better access to health food really increase fruits and vegetable intakes? From the literature review conducted by two nonprofit organizations: PolicyLinks and The Food Trust. “The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why Does it Matters” shows that eight studies analyzed access to nearby supermarkets or large grocery stores that sell a wide variety of healthy foods in relation to consumption of fruits and vegetables, specific healthy foods (such as low-fat milk or high-fiber bread), or a healthy diet (measured by an index of diet quality). Almost all of these studies control for individual characteristics such as race and income and still find a relationship between access and healthy eating.
Now that we know healthy food access does relates to healthy eating habits, the next question is, does increase access to healthy food really promotes better health outcome at low-income population? In Indianapolis, BMI values correspond with access to supermarkets and fast food restaurants. Researchers estimate that adding a new grocery store to a high-poverty neighborhood translates into a three pound weight decrease, and eliminating a fast food restaurant from a fast food dense neighborhood translates into a one pound decrease. (1) In California, obesity and diabetes rates are 20 percent higher for those living in the least healthy “food environments,” controlling for household income, race/ethnicity, age, gender, and physical activity levels. A 2009 study of Chicago’s food deserts found that as the distance to the nearest grocer increases relative to the distance to the nearest fringe food outlet, the Years of Potential Life Loss (YPLL) due to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and liver disease increases. This relationship is significant in African American communities, but less clear for white and Hispanic communities. (2)
As these and many other studies suggested, many residents of low-income, minority and rural communities lack sufficient opportunities to buy healthy and affordable food. On the other hand, they have higher access to fast food restaurants and corner stores with high calorie and long shelf life food. Food desert can be a great tool for researchers and politic makers to locate the communities in need. However, other factors that influence what people buy and eat, like food prices, preparation time and knowledge, marketing, general levels of education, transportation, cultural practices and taste, also play important roles in people’s diet and health.
(1) Liu, G., Wilson, J., Qi, R., and Ying, J. “Green Neighborhoods, Food Retail and Childhood Overweight: Differences by Population Density.” American Journal of Health Promotion 21, no.4 (2007): 317-325.
(2) Gallagher, M. The Chicago Food Desert Report. Chicago, IL: Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, 2009. Available at http://www.marigallagher.com.