New Study Suggests Food Deserts Require More Than Fresh Produce

By Matthew Cameron

After I wrote yesterday about a 2004 study showing that supermarket availability leads to greater fruit consumption among low-income individuals, my ThinkProgress comrade Amanda Beadle pointed out that a similar report was just released earlier this month. Its findings paint a more complicated picture of the “food desert” problem than did those of the Richards and Rose study I cited previously:

Fast food consumption was related to fast food availability among low-income respondents, particularly within 1.00 to 2.99 km of home among men (coefficient, 0.34; 95% confidence interval, 0.16-0.51). Greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed.

This conclusion is important for a number of reasons. First, the study followed individuals throughout a 15-year period rather than taking a snapshot of their conditions at a specific point in their lives. This enabled researchers to compile a significant pool of data points and control for numerous confounding variables that could impact the progression of individual health over time.

Furthermore, the portion of the study dealing with supermarket availability used a more comprehensive measurement of diet quality than did the Richards and Rose study. The system is known as the Diet Quality Index, and it measures nutritional health based on individuals’ success in meeting the daily recommended intake of certain food groups such as fruits and vegetables.

That is crucial because it means that while the report’s findings don’t necessarily contradict the Richards and Rose study, they significantly detract from the argument that expanding access to supermarkets is key to improving low-income dietary habits. Individuals who live close to supermarkets might consume more fruits on net than they would otherwise, but this might not be enough to significantly improve their health if they still aren’t meeting the daily recommended intake of fruits. Additionally, fruits might not be the only thing people consume in greater quantities when they live near supermarkets — chips, soft drinks and dessert items also might find their way into individuals’ shopping carts.

Finally, the report looks at the related issue of fast food availability among low-income individuals. It concludes that living near certain fast food establishments does, in fact, increase fast food consumption among low-income men. This further suggests that locating supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods might not be enough to improve overall health outcomes if individuals still live in close proximity to unhealthy fast-food restaurants.