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Shifting Focus: New Strategies to Fight Food Deserts

In recent years the concept of food deserts, commonly defined as areas with low car ownership combined with few or no supermarkets located within a mile, has become a focus of politicians and public health professionals looking to improve health outcomes in low-income communities.

In 2010 then First Lady Michelle Obama made food deserts a focus of her ‘Let’s Move!” initiative aimed at fighting childhood obesity, citing the fact that 23.5 million Americans live in areas that qualify as food deserts. In addition to the “Let’s Move!” campaign, the 2010 Healthy Food Financing Initiative aimed at expanding access to healthier foods in low income areas received a boost in resources when Congress allocated $125 million dollars for the program in a 2014 farm bill.

Reading through the list of programs funded through the initiative, there is a clear preference for building grocery stores or supermarkets in the communities receiving the grants. While this may on the surface seem like the most obvious option given the fact that food deserts are essentially defined as lacking nearby supermarkets, there has actually been vigorous debate over whether or not these kinds of approaches are the right way to fight food deserts. Some have argued that supermarkets alone are unlikely to change human behavior, therefore incentives or awareness campaigns would be necessary to supplement expanded access. Others argue that expanding access to healthier foods does nothing to alleviate the underlying problems in food desert communities, which is poverty.

There are undoubtedly opportunities to reconcile these competing viewpoints. Healthier people are in general more productive, which can improve their earning potential. This does not help everyone, and especially not those earning below what is considered a “living wage.” However, there is no reason why expanding access to healthier foods could not be combined with other poverty alleviation programs. As far as human behavior is concerned, public health professionals can work to design interventions that encourage people to take advantage of the healthier foods available through programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Food deserts can be fought, but it is up to politicians and public health professionals to create programs that will address the issue from multiple angles.

In addition to issues of human behavior and poverty, it remains to be seen whether or not we truly understand the nature of food deserts. The classic definition of food deserts revolve around supermarkets, which a new study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine calls into question. The researchers’ focus in the study was to gain a better understanding of where food outlets choose to locate by studying four cities over a period of 25 years in four cities- Chicago, Illinois; Birmingham, Alabama; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Oakland, California.

The researchers confirmed, based on studying growth of food sources available over time, that lower-income and minority communities tend to “attract” less healthy food sources (convenience stores, fast food restaurants, etc.) and “attract” fewer healthier food sources such as full-service restaurants and supermarkets. While this may seem intuitive, it is important to understand these trends based on a number of variables. The researchers looked at income, high school education levels, percentage of white population, and number of vacant buildings among others in order to gain a greater understanding of what “attracts” certain food sources to neighborhoods.

The best way to combat these trends that reinforce food deserts, according to the researchers, would be to address the relative availability of food sources rather than focus solely on expanding the number of supermarkets in a given area. Without addressing the growth of less healthy food sources, fast food restaurants and convenience stores will continue to dominate food deserts in America even with the existence of well-intentioned programs like the “Let’s Move!” campaign and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

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Topics: Community Resources Food food insecurity Food deserts