Access, Availability, Price, or Consumer Choice?


October 8, 2012 by hkari2012

Ladies and Gentleman, You live in a food desert. Yes, the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is located in a US Census tract defined as having limited access to supermarkets or limited availability of affordable and nutritious food (2). Granted, low-income residents of Chapel Hill won’t be frequenting TopO but the townies of Chapel Hill, as those families are called, are not struggling to get to Whole Foods. Mr. Dennis Gillings himself, of Quintiles Transnational and the generous philanthropist of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, now owns a house in this food desert. And I would venture to argue that the undergrads living on-campus or on Franklin and Rosemary Streets are doing just fine navigating their way to UNC campus dining halls to get their meals. Yet, there are plenty of Burmese refugees, Latinos, and homeless many other demographics that also live in and around Chapel Hill that could be a large enough population to determine Chapel Hill as a food desert. Herein lies the difficulty of defining a food desert.

USDA defines a food desert as a census tract wherein at least a third of the low-income community lives more than a mile from a supermarket or in a rural area more than 10 miles from a large grocery store. Simple logic explains this definition if the shopper has to travel far distances to get a grocery store buying any food will be difficult. However, there is another dimension to the distance component of the food desert definition that is overlooked in the Food Desert Locator. Researchers cited that investigating the “types of foods and prices in every store” was too costly and therefore not a determinant of mapping these food deserts(4). More efforts have been put into evaluating the quality of affordable foods in these stores to get a better handle on what is available to shoppers. But does availability mean better food choices? (See Yu-I’s post)

The second part of a food desert definition includes having a low-income community. “Low-income community” is defined as either “a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income”. In theory, reliable and convenient access to food is significantly limited for low-income Americans. It is often assumed that cost is the barrier to accessing fresh food is the problem. This argument makes sense to some extent; a New York Times article quoted a Johns Hopkins master’s student Arielle Taub saying, “Food prices of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 40% between 1985 and 2000, while prices of fats and soft drinks decreased by 15% and 25%, respectively, during the same period”(1). Price comparisons between fruits & vegetables (f&V) and higher-calorie, energy dense foods like the one conducted by University of Washington are often based on price per calorie (3). Since f&v are high in nutrients and low in calories, it takes more f&v to reach an individual’s daily caloric needs and therefore cost more per fruit or vegetable calorie. Energy-dense foods, as the name suggests, packs more calories per serving so less of these foods need to be purchased to reach an individual’s daily caloric needs. This price comparison in conjunction with Taub’s analysis that f&v are more vulnerable to price hikes supports the conclusion that it is more expensive to eat high quantities of high nutrient, “healthy” foods than energy-dense, nutrient sparse foods.

Even if fruits and vegetables are available (frozen or fresh) in a grocery store located within a mile, someone trying to stretch his/her dollar won’t necessarily go for the bananas and asparagus. This is where behavioral economics comes into play. I’m not a behavioral economics expert but it makes sense that foods with unnatural taste combinations (eg salty & sweet, fat & salty) will have more of an appeal for a consumer. Hot Cheetos and Takis (see YouTube video here) taste awesome regardless of their nutrient content. An overabundance of these highly processed, energy-dense foods creates a “food swamp” where these “unhealthy” foods permeate the stores and choices offered to shoppers.

Educating consumers about their choices and the consequences, good and bad, of such choices is important. I believe this consumer education has more significance in areas where there are grocery stores. In these areas education can equip all socioeconomic classes to make better selections from the barrage of choices at American supermarkets. In these food swamps, however, a significant increase in the availability of affordable f&v and other high nutrient foods should be the focus. Taking this approach in food swamps demands a further analysis of the quality of foods available. In the long-run demands that the agriculture & food production system favors stable prices for “healthy” foods instead of making it so cheap to use commodity crops to generate such a large array of energy-dense foods that are more ubiquitous than any other type of food on the shelves of American grocery stores.

(1)Taub, Arielle. Assessing Baltimore’s Farmer’s Markets & Proposing Recommendations to Increase Access; MPH Capstone. May 2011.

(2)Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Desert Locator.

(3) Parker-Pope, Tara. “High Price for Healthy Food”. 5 Dec 2007. NY Times Well Blogs.

(4) USDA Economic Research Service. Access to Affordable, Nutritious Food is Limited in “Food Deserts”. Amber Waves, March 2010.


2 thoughts on “Access, Availability, Price, or Consumer Choice?

  1. To play the devil’s advocate here, is it the subsidies to certain crops (e.g, soy, corn, wheat) or simply technological advancements in the past few decades that have allowed food prices to fall? Some recent articles (by Julian Alston, UCDavis) argues it’s really technology that have been the cause, and that even if the US were to eliminate all farm supports, caloric intake would not change very much at all. But perhaps this is all besides the point — yes, folks in the US have had the luxury of low food prices for a long time, but they have failed to take into account the REAL cost of food, which we are ALL paying for in the back end in terms of health care costs!

  2. kalnajja says:

    In Washington State, I had the opportunity to work with and support a non-profit called Comunidad a Comunidad (Community to Community) whose mission is to restore justice to food, land and cultural practices through eco-feminism and food justice. They worked with and for many farmworkers who lacked access to healthy foods. The irony here is that while these very capable farmworkers, living in one of the most lush and agriculturally varied areas, were still going hungry. It always seemed counter-intuitive to me how this population of people who in many respects “controlled” the flow of local organic foods, had zero access to them.

    When Kari explained USDA’s Food Desert definition, I couldn’t’ help but think about the population of low-income workers picking our fields and orchards. Even the farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, mostly go unnoticed in the food desert discussion. Yet, they are living close to and working in our fields. Talk about availability without accessibility.

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