Are Food Deserts a Thing?

For Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan phrased this very succinctly:

British politicians introduced the idea of food deserts in the mid-1990s, adopting the term after a few preliminary studies suggested a link might exist between distance to a grocery store and the diets of poor people.

They were talking about inner cities, with a seeming lack of awareness that rural areas may also be deprived. At any rate, whether in town or country, not everyone has a car. Or they have one, but the husband doesn’t let his wife drive, and he may be too incapacitated by alcohol to drive her. Or he may be working three jobs, and not have time. Or their car might be in the shop or sitting propped up in a yard, waiting for a new tire. People live all kinds of lives, complicated in all sorts of ways, and university-level researchers designing a study might not have a complete grasp of the nuances.

A person who is already low-income gets into even worse financial shape through living in a part of town where retailers can get away with exploitation. Mom-and-pop establishments and franchise convenience stores can pretty much charge whatever they feel like.

In a food desert, prices are artificially high, and fresh produce is unavailable. The residents do not have convenient access to healthful and nutritious foods; or if they do, such fare is unaffordable. Since fresh-food access would improve the health of people living in poverty, improving this situation is seen as a desirable public good.

In Britain, takeouts are a huge problem, with seemingly as many of them as there are actual dwelling places. In the U.S., convenience stores and gas stations are ubiquitous. So, technically speaking, food is widely available even in the most depressed and oppressed neighborhoods.

However, it is likely to be “energy-dense” (also known as high-calorie) processed pseudo-food. By strange coincidence, areas with deficient good-food availability also happen to be areas where the opportunities for healthful recreation are limited. Even when such facilities physically exist, their usefulness can be curtailed by rigid regulations intended to prevent crime. Often, food deserts also happen to be neighborhoods inhabited by minority-type people.

In the late 1990s, a study in Glasgow, Scotland found that “food stores were more numerous in the more deprived localities and postcode districts in the study site.” That is not quite the point, because if they are all selling the same processed junk, having a large number of such stores is not really helpful.

Concern spreads

The United States got interested, and in 2004, a Fresh Food Financing Initiative passed in the state of Pennsylvania. Its mission was to help smaller retail food outlets expand their stock of fresh foods, and to encourage supermarkets to establish stores in neighborhoods that didn’t have them.

Research took place in other American communities, as well as in Canada, which is quite like America in many ways. In 2006, a study scrutinized community reaction in four Minnesota communities with depressed economies, two in cities and two in the country. Consumer surveys were designed, and responded to by 400 rural customers and 396 urban customers. Forty-one focus group discussions were conducted, and teams inventoried the food products available in the local stores. The major problems were identified as high cost, low food quality, and limited choices.

In the following year, the city of Montreal set up a study using three measures of supermarket accessibility (proximity, diversity, and variety in low-income neighborhoods). The negative effect on the nutritional quality of consumers’ diets was found to be “modest.” Researchers concluded that “there are very few problematic food deserts in Montreal” and that food deserts “do not represent a major problem.”

But where some research is concerned, the basic premises might not have been universally agreed upon. For instance, a later study in the U.S. of people who used SNAP benefits (food stamps) found that “difficulty in accessing an item was associated with fewer purchases of only one food group (noncanned fruits and vegetables).”

But hold on there. Fresh fruits and vegetables represent a bit more than just one out of several food groups. It’s an enormous one! The unavailability of fresh produce is the issue around which all these research projects were supposedly designed in the first place — the very crux of the problem. So, to call them “only one food group” seems both dismissive and disingenuous. It also raises questions about what factors any concurrent and subsequent studies actually looked at.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem,”, 02/10/14
Source: “The location of food stores in urban areas: a case study in Glasgow,”, 1999
Source: “Fruit and vegetable access in four low-income food deserts communities in Minnesota,”, 10/10/06
Source: “The case of Montreal’s missing food deserts: Evaluation of accessibility to food supermarkets,”, February 2007
Source: “Five Years and $500 Million Later, USDA Admits That ‘Food Deserts’ Don’t Matter,”, 06/13/16
Photo credit: Andrew Russeth (16 Miles of String) on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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