For most Americans, grocery shopping is a routine errand. But millions of consumers, especially people with low incomes, have trouble obtaining affordable and nutritious foods because they live in areas with few, if any, large grocery stores or supermarkets, and they may also lack transportation.
In these so-called food deserts, many health advocates warn that people are likely to eat fewer nutritious foods than recommended, which puts them at risk for such health problems as obesity and diabetes. However, other experts argue that food choices are shaped by many factors, not simply by distance to a supermarket.
In the 2008 farm bill, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the extent and impacts of low access to healthy foods. USDA found that 11.5 million Americans, or 4.1 percent of the U.S. population, have low incomes (at or below 200 percent of federal poverty thresholds) and live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles away in rural areas). As a result, people often shop at small markets or convenience stores that do not carry healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables or seafood. And smaller stores typically charge more than supermarkets, so consumers get less food for their money.
According to USDA's online Food Desert Locator, food deserts are widely distributed across the United States, from rural areas such as northern Maine to parts of Chicago, Los Angeles and other large cities. Urban food deserts often are in areas with high percentages of minority residents.
“In North Chicago there are no grocery stores,” said Rhonda Moore, who has Type 2 diabetes and struggles to eat a healthy diet. “Buses don't run on weekends. Cabs are expensive. I try to stock up on frozen things. I'd prefer to eat more salads and such, but you can't buy [fresh produce] in bulk. It only lasts so long.”
First lady Michelle Obama and students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., harvest vegetables from the White House kitchen garden on the South Lawn of the White House on June 16, 2009. She has made “food deserts” a focus of her “Let's Move” campaign to improve Americans' health. “In so many neighborhoods, if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid's lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it,” she said. (Getty Images/Win McNamee)
First lady Michelle Obama has made food deserts a focus of her “Let's Move” initiative to improve American health through better diets and exercise. “In so many neighborhoods, if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid's lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it,” Obama said last October. Large grocers pledged to open more than 1,000 new stores selling fresh produce in under-served areas, but action on that promise has lagged, with one notable exception: Walgreen's, a national pharmacy chain, is opening “food oasis” stores in urban areas that carry fresh produce along with more typical drugstore products.
Still, some experts say the distance to a store is only one of many influences on Americans' food choices. Others include cultural preferences, work schedules and whether consumers have time to cook their own meals. Several recent studies have found only a weak relationship between foods sold near subjects' homes and what those people choose to consume.
“Just because someone lives in a neighborhood doesn't mean they actually shop there. You need to do research on the ground to understand what's happening,” says Rebecca Klein, director of the Public Health and Agriculture Policy Project at John Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future.
Journalist Tracie McMillan, who lived in several areas with relatively few supermarkets while researching her 2012 book The American Way of Eating, says the issue is more complex than the number of stores in a neighborhood. “The food desert concept is a shorthand for food distribution, which isn't just a matter of counting stores. It's the whole system for getting food into communities,” she says. Most of the national transportation and storage systems that move food from farms to plates are controlled by a few large supermarket chains, which historically have not seen investing in low-income communities as a profitable business strategy. But McMillan does not think building more supermarkets in underserved areas will automatically solve the problem.
“Supermarkets do important things really well, but they tend to consolidate power. Their business model depends on offering a lot of processed foods, so you can shop there and buy a completely junk-food diet,” McMillan contends. “It's important to bring more retail to communities that don't have enough access. But small grocers and farmers markets may do a better job connecting with people in their neighborhoods and understanding what kinds of foods those people appreciate and want to eat.”
— Jennifer Weeks