Eliminating Food Deserts Won’t Help Poorer Americans Eat Healthier

The effect on healthy eating from opening new supermarkets is negligible at best.

The effect on healthy eating from opening new supermarkets is negligible at best. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The effect on healthy eating from opening new supermarkets is negligible at best.

In the U.S., rich people tend to eat a lot healthier than poor people.

Because poor diets cause obesity, Type II diabetes and other diseases, this nutritional inequality contributes to unequal health outcomes. The richest Americans can expect to live 10-15 years longer than the poorest.

Many think that a key cause of nutritional inequality is food deserts – or neighborhoods without supermarkets, mostly in low-income areas. The narrative is that folks who live in food deserts are forced to shop at local convenience stores, where it’s hard to find healthy groceries. If we could just get a supermarket to open in those neighborhoods, the thinking goes, then people would be able to eat healthy.

The data tell a strikingly different story.

Negligible Change

We recently studied the impact of opening supermarkets in food deserts in research conducted with fellow economists Rebecca Diamond, Jessie Handbury and Ilya Rahkovsky.

From 2004 to 2016, over 1,000 supermarkets opened in neighborhoods around the country that previously had been food deserts. We analyzed the grocery purchases of a sample of 10,000 households living in those neighborhoods.

Did they start to buy healthier food after the supermarket opened nearby?

Although many people began shopping at the new local supermarket after it opened, they generally didn’t buy healthier food. We can statistically conclude that the effect on healthy eating from opening new supermarkets was negligible at best. We calculated that local access to supermarkets explains no more than about 1.5% of the difference in healthy eating between low- and high-income households.

How could this be?

Why Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem

The food desert narrative suggests the lack of supply of healthy foods is what causes reduced demand for them.

But in the modern economy, stores have become amazingly good at selling us exactly the kinds of things we want to buy. Our research suggests the opposite narrative: Lower demand for healthy food is what causes the lack of supply.

Furthermore, local neighborhood conditions don’t matter much, since we regularly venture outside our neighborhoods. We calculate that the average American travels 5.2 miles to shop. Low-income households aren’t that different: They travel 4.8 miles.

Given that we’re willing to travel that far, we tend to shop in supermarkets even if there isn’t one down the street. We found that even people who live in ZIP codes without a supermarket still buy 85% of their groceries from supermarkets.

Tax Sugar, Subsidize Produce

In other words, people don’t suddenly go from shopping at an unhealthy convenience store to shopping at the new, healthy supermarket. In reality, people go from shopping at a faraway supermarket to shopping at a new supermarket that offers the same types of groceries.

To be clear, new grocery stores do provide many benefits. In many neighborhoods, new retail can bring jobs, a place to see neighbors and a sense of revitalization. People who live nearby get more options and don’t have to travel as far to shop.

But the data show that healthier eating is not one of those benefits.

Instead, we would recommend tweaking prices as a better approach to encouraging healthier habits. Taxes on sugary drinks can discourage their consumption, while food-stamp programs could be modified to make fruits and vegetables cheaper.

And, given that we develop long-term eating habits as children, parents and schools can encourage kids to eat healthier.

Health inequality is one of our society’s most important problems. We hope that this research can direct efforts toward ideas that can materially improve health – and away from ideas that do not.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hunt Allcott is an associate professor of economics at New York University. Jean-Pierre Dubé is the Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago. Molly Schnell is an assistant professor of economics at Northwestern University.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
St. Louis Uses Interactive Kiosks as a Critical COVID-19 Communications Platform
St. Louis, MO, USA
Corpus Christi Deploys COVID Management System to Improve Data & Eliminate Time-Consuming Tasks
Corpus Christi, TX, USA
Safer Holiday Celebrations Connect Residents and Support Local Business in Franklin, TN
Franklin, TN, USA

NEXT STORY: Coping With Power Loss: California’s Hospitals Face New Reality

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.