The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Food Desert Study

Food Desert Study

Shoppers and Trends

March 25, 2012

People without access to supermarkets may have limited ability to purchase healthful foods, according to a study from the University of Georgia (UGA). The cross-sectional study examined the distribution of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit accepting stores across different neighborhoods in Leon County, FL, and surveyed 73 stores, finding that store type affects the availability and price of healthful food items. 

This lack of access to healthful foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods, a mounting problem across the nation, has created what are known as “food deserts”. The USDA reports that 23.5 million people live in these under-served areas. 

Food stores tend to be located where the potential benefits outweigh the costs. These decisions, however, are affected by many factors in a complex way. The existence of food deserts in a low-income/city neighborhood even with a strong consumer demand can be a result of high costs – including rent, utilities, and transporting goods, limited parking spaces or unavailability of public transportation nearby, and safety issues.

Study author Dr. Jung Sun Lee, an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia, says this is the first study to examine food deserts that are distinct to food assistance beneficiaries. Although previous studies have documented disparities in food store access across different neighborhoods, no studies have documented the availability and distribution of SNAP-authorized retailers in different neighborhoods.

“Studies like ours are critical to better understand why and how food deserts affect the ability of SNAP recipients to use their benefits, and to suggest ways to help them follow healthful dietary patterns including food assistance programs and related policies, regulations by federal and state governments, business and marketing strategies by food insecurity, public-private partnerships, and nutrition education addressing food resource management targeted to low-income consumers,” says Lee.

Of the 73 stores surveyed in the UGA study, 29% were supermarkets, 11% were grocery stores and 60% were convenience stores. Foods studied were from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for America of “food groups to encourage.” Consistent with previous studies on the topic, this study found that supermarkets offer more healthful foods at lower prices than in grocery stores and convenience stores. Differences in price by store type for low-fat half-gallon size milk and approximately 30% (6 of 20) of fresh fruits and vegetables were significant.

While stores in low-income areas in Leon County provided similar availability and prices of more healthful foods compared with stores in high-income neighborhoods, poor and minority neighborhoods had fewer supermarkets. It is almost certainly this disproportionate distribution that is negatively influencing the purchasing and consumption of more healthful foods among low-income minority populations.

“Eating and food-related behaviors are complex and are influenced not only by individual factors, but also by environmental factors. We still have a very limited understanding on if and how living in an environment with limited access to food stores, or having access to stores with a limited availability of affordable healthful food items, may affect an individual's food purchase and dietary intake. Price and availability of food items may be important factors affecting an individual’s food-related behavior, but other factors should be also adequately considered. For example, quality or sensory properties of fresh fruits and vegetables needs to be considered carefully, because this is one of the critical factors affecting fruit and vegetable acceptability and ultimately purchase decision. More food environment research is needed to shed light on these issues and to find solutions,” says Lee.

In terms of availability, all of the 10 fruits and 10 vegetables studied were significantly different by store type. Watermelon, grapes, honeydew and cantaloupe were not available in grocery stores. Only oranges, apples and bananas were available in convenience stores. All 10 vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet potatoes and tomatoes) were available in supermarkets, but none were available in convenience stores. 

Of the 73 stores studied, 40% (29) were in high-income areas; 60% (44) were in low-income areas. High-income areas included 13 supermarkets, one grocery and 15 convenience stores. Low-income areas included 8 supermarkets, 7 grocery and 29 convenience stores. An overwhelming majority of convenience stores (66%) were in low-income neighborhoods.

Without the right development incentives to attract well-rounded food stores to under-served neighborhoods, there is a risk of perpetuation and higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses – which means that consumers who live in these economically disadvantaged areas are also at a nutritional disadvantage. 

“The choice of food offering in convenience stores may be affected by many factors including the perishability of fresh produce which is contingent on the space, equipment, and consumer demand of convenience stores,” says Lee. “Frozen or canned vegetables could be an alternative option if enough space and equipment required to store adequate kinds and amount of fresh produce to meet consumer demand for a reasonable time period are not available.”

Lee adds that various interventions are being conducted in several states to help smaller groceries and corner stores expand their stock of healthful and affordable food items. Different approaches are being tried in these interventions including the provision of equipment, produce and training. The findings and experiences from these interventions help researchers, administrators, and policy makers figure out strategies to improve the access to healthful foods across different types of food retail stores.