Economic Perspective: Do Food Deserts Cause Nutritional Problems?
“Today’s program asks if food deserts cause nutritional problems. Mike, food deserts are defined as neighborhoods lacking large supermarkets that provide a large wide variety of healthy foods. Consequently, households households living in those neighborhoods have less access to healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables. Is the solution to eliminate the food deserts by attracting large supermarkets to underserved areas?”
“Well you would think the answer is yes. You would think that if you get those large supermarkets to move into the neighborhoods where they previously didn’t exist, and that the consumers would have more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other healthy foods, it would help their nutritional outcomes.”
“Well we have a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is a private economic think-tank. It’s the oldest around. They looked at data that they had that compared neighborhoods where you had big supermarkets move in offering these healthy alternatives to residents. They looked at those neighborhoods and the nutritional outcomes and then they compared those to neighborhoods that did not have those large supermarkets, so you weren’t seeing more healthy foods come in.”
“And guess what? They found very little difference in what residents of those neighborhoods were buying. That nutritional content of food purchases did not change between the neighborhoods that got the fresh fruits and vegetables and those that did not. And I think the conclusion here, at least the conclusion reached by the study, is that “why” is answered by the fact that residents simply didn’t change their buying habits even though they were able to now buy more fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. They didn’t.”
“And so I think the answer here is yes, we need more healthy alternatives in many neighborhoods, but we also need to educate households, the residents, about buying those healthy fresh fruits and vegetables in order to cause nutritional overall to improve.”
Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.