If You Build It, They Won’t Come: Why Eliminating Food Deserts Won’t Close the Nutrition Gap

Food quality in the United States has garnered significant attention in the last decade. As more Americans question the food we eat, we have also started to wonder why poor nutrition disproportionately affects individuals of lower income and education. Poor nutrition is one of the many problems that we worry has resulted from growing socioeconomic disparities.

A recent study, published as an NBER Working Paper in April 2015, finds that wealthy, educated, American households purchase foods that are 40 percent closer to USDA nutrition recommendations than their lower-income, less-educated counterparts. While public opinion might lead you to believe that food deserts are at fault, this study urges its readers to take a closer look.

Jessie Handbury at The University of Pennsylvania, Ilya Rahkovsky at the USDA, and Molly Schnell at Princeton University measure the quality of a household’s monthly food purchases by assigning scores based on FDA recommendations for fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol levels. They also rank purchases based on the 52 food groups, as defined by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The researchers observe purchases made within a given store and compare income and education levels of customers with the nutritional quality of their groceries.

For low income and education households, the most publicized reason that people eat poorly is that they do not have access to healthier options. Media coverage of efforts to combat nutritional disparities has focused primarily on efforts by grocers like Whole Foods to open stores in underserved neighborhoods. However, according to the study by Schnell et al., policy initiatives focusing on increasing access to nutritious food will only solve a small portion of these nutritional differences. Controlling for income level, the study finds that differences in access only explain 10 percent of disparities in consumption across education groups.

Furthermore, the study finds that households do not strongly respond to the entry of new stores into their geographic area, even though they are aware of the addition of new stores. When households change the mix of stores they visit once a new store is introduced, the researchers do not observe a lasting change in the nutritional value of their purchases.

These findings are troubling because they challenge the efficiency of recent policy efforts to improve access to nutritional foods, such as the Agricultural Act of 2014. Under this program, the federal government will dedicate $125 million per year for five years to increase access to healthy food for underserved areas. But, if increased access does not close the nutrition gap, this effort misdirects over half of a billion dollars.

In this new model of nutritional disparity, differences in consumption are a result of variations in demand, more than supply. According to the study, at least half of the observed differences in consumption can be explained by tastes. Intuitively, there are a variety of reasons why people eat differently, such as costs, cultural traditions, and marketing strategies for different products. Although it is unclear which of these factors plays the largest role, equating food access across all socioeconomic groups would still leave significant nutritional disparity without a complementary demand-side approach—at least in the short term.

Article Source: What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases Across the Socioeconomic Spectrum,” Handbury, Rahkovsky and Schnell, NBER Working Paper, April 2015

Feature Photo: cc/(Dimitri Glazkov)

Sarah Guminski
Sarah ('17) is a staff writer for Urban Affairs. She is interested in urban social policy.

One Response to “If You Build It, They Won’t Come: Why Eliminating Food Deserts Won’t Close the Nutrition Gap

  • I don’t think that this conclusion can legitimately be drawn based on the opening of a Whole Foods in a neighborhood. Whole Foods is an extremely expensive grocery store that many middle class people, let alone poor people, avoid. Researchers would have to look at more reasonably priced stores.

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