By Matthew Cameron
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported Michelle Obama is teaming up with Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Supervalu, and a number of regional supermarkets to build stores in what are known as “food deserts,” low-income areas that have little-to-no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The logic behind this initiative is that it’s tough for poor people to eat healthy if the only places in their neighborhoods that sell food are convenience stores and corner markets. Therefore, building supermarkets that are stocked with a variety of fresh produce ought to improve the health of the people who live in these neighborhoods.
Now, there’s plenty of research out there that would appear to validate this assumption. This study, for example, found that people who live near supermarkets have better health outcomes than those who live closer to convenience stores or small-scale grocers. Another suggests that individuals who regularly shop at supermarkets consume more fruits and vegetables than those who purchase food elsewhere.
But arguably these studies are just showing that poor people are both unhealthy, and tend to live in neighborhoods that lack grocery stores. Would more supermarkets, as such, actually make a difference?
A study by Donald Rose and Rickell Richards of Tulane University comes closer to answering this question. It looks at whether easy access to supermarkets correlates to fruit and vegetable consumption. Importantly, the study’s sample consists solely of food stamp recipients, who are overwhelmingly low-income. This controls for the various socioeconomic characteristics that confound the other studies. Additionally, the authors’ calculations accounted for other factors such as nutritional awareness, employment status and parental status that could have skewed their findings. The result:
After controlling for confounding variables, easy access to supermarket shopping was associated with increased household use of fruits (84 grams per adult equivalent per day; 95% conﬁdence interval). Distance from home to food store was inversely associated with fruit use by households. Similar patterns were seen with vegetable use, though associations were not signiﬁcant. [...]
Nationally representative studies show that fruit consumption is low in the USA, with an average of only 1.5 servings consumed per person per day. Given this panorama, our results, suggesting a 1 serving size difference in fruit consumption due to store access, mean that store access is an important issue, even if only for the limited portion of the Food Stamp population with an access problem. While our results on the relationship of store access to vegetable consumption are less certain, the latter continues to be a dietary problem.
Obviously, improving access to fresh produce isn’t a panacea for all of the disadvantages — time and budget constraints, lack of nutritional education, etc. — that the poor face. But Rose and Richards’ report should encourage supermarkets and the Obama administration to press on with this initiative as a plank in the broader fight against health inequality.