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Thursday April 26, 2018
Why food deserts have to go.

In mid-January, Johns Hopkins "Center for a Livable Future," one of several university policy centers aimed at finding and changing flaws in the modern food system, released a new study urging policy-makers abandon the now-common term, "food deserts."

The center's Baltimore City’s Food Environment: 2018 Report, released in partnership with Baltimore's urban-planning department, noted several problems with the term, which has come to mean areas in which policy-makers believe average citizens are so hampered by lack of access to a store selling healthy food that it significantly affects their diet. What's the problem with "food desert," according to conversations the center's researchers held with Baltimore's community groups, residents and national leaders?

  • It implies that poor access to healthy food is a natural phenomenon, rather than caused by manmade "structural inequities."
  • It doesn't consider that in these areas many food outlets may be available but that they just don't meet the definition of "healthy" providers.
  • It's insulting to "vibrant communities with passionate and resilient residents and programs on the ground."

Instead, Baltimore will adopt the report's advice to now call food deserts, "Healthy Food Priority Areas," based on the following criteria (which, incidentally, are identical to those used to previously define food deserts):

  • The average Healthy Food Availability Index score for all food stores is low
  • The median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level
  • More than 30 percent of households have no vehicle available
  • The distance to a supermarket is more than a quarter mile

Under those conditions, Johns Hopkins concluded 23.5 percent of the city residents live in a healthy food priority area, nee food desert, a slight improvement from the 25 percent reported by the last survey, three years ago. Call it what you may, the report's proposed solution was as similar as prescriptions to solve the previous definitions: "Policy and programmatic activities should be prioritized."

But a new study by economists at New York University, Stanford and University of Chicago adds more evidence to the argument that it's not the name that should be at issue. It's the whole idea that may be an illusion.

The study matched food and CPG purchase data from the Nielsen Homescan panel against the geography of USDA's Healthy Eating Index between 2004 and 2015. It compared dietary differences between households making more than $70,000 vs. those under $25,000 annually.

Although the results did confirm the idea that low-income neighborhoods are more desert-prone—more than half of low-income neighborhoods fit the definition of food desert, compared to only about a fourth of all neighborhoods, they also showed some surprising similarities in food-buying patterns. Both upper- and lower-income households buy their food predominately at grocery stores, spending 91 percent and 87 percent of food dollars there, respectively. That statistic calls into question the notion that low-income residents are limited to buying food at lower-quality convenience stores and bodegas. Both groups also travel roughly the same distance to get to those stores: Although food-desert residents travel an average of about 7 miles to reach a store, compared to just 5.5 miles for the average shopper, food deserts also include rural America, where everyone travels further to find a store. When the researchers focused only on urban areas, where the desert concern is most acute, they found low-income shoppers actually travel shorter distances than average to reach a store— 4.8 miles. Low-income shoppers living in an urban food desert who don't own a car travel only 2 miles on average to reach a food store.

The study throws cold water on the idea that geography is to blame for unhealthy diets, or that wiping out food deserts would have any meaningful effect on poor eating habits. The differences between healthy and unhealthy eating in America, the researchers conclude, comes not from where they live, but from differences in education, knowledge and culture.

The study tracked the results on food consumption when new supermarkets enter low-income neighborhoods, including food deserts. They found it "...remarkable that supermarket entry seems to matter so little." The eating habits of low-income households don't change when they're giving better access by the appearance of a new supermarket in their neighborhood, and therefore, "...differences in local access to supermarkets offering healthy options do not appear to be driving the nutrition-income relationship in household purchases." When shoppers in low-income neighborhoods do buy groceries from the new supermarkets, they buy the same low-nutrition products they do at existing food outlets—building a supermarket closer simply pulls existing sales from the further-away supermarkets. They conclude bringing healthier and closer retail stores to food deserts statistically accounts for only 5 percent of the difference in the nutritional choices for both sets ofconsumers. In addition, by tracking improvements in food habits when people moved from food deserts to non food deserts, the researchers showed geographic accessibility made only a 3 percent difference in Healthy Eating Index scores when you moved the shoppers to more accessable areas.

If geography does impact a low-income resident's likelihood to eat poorly, they suggest, it's likely it does so not because the supply of healthy food is insufficient, but because demand for healthy food is lower owing to "place effects," that is, people who live in the same area tend to share the same demographics that drive demand, whether it's the "peer effects" of mirroring the eating habits of friends and neighbors, general local knowledge about nutrition and its role in health, or image concerns related to healthy eating. Policy makers who want to make a difference in solving the eating habits of food deserts would likely have more luck focusing on improving those demand drivers than trying to manage supply, they suggest.

More about the problems with "food deserts" from past issues of Farmer Goes to Market:

  • Eight reasons to question the 'food deserts' term. An extensive review of the literature attempts to understand why nobody has yet successfully established a meaningful definition of food deserts nor even how to measure one. The list of what's wrong with measuring food deserts includes these eight holes.
  • Sounds good in theory, but... Neither limited supermarket access nor low income has any clearly established effect on weight, this researcher concluded. Until the conflicting forces he identifies are better understood, the concept of food deserts does little to guide policy-makers in preventing increasing obesity rates.
  • More supermarkets means more fruits and vegetables? Research by ag economists at University of Nebraska-Lincoln analyzed how changes in household income and food access affected actual purchases. Their results suggest that providing better food access to the wealthier residents in a food desert would, in fact, lead them to buy slightly more fruits and vegetables. But, bringing in more food options would lead the poorer residents to simply eat even more junk food.

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