Despite data that have driven public policy decisions over the last several decades, a new study finds access to supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods does not necessarily result in healthier diet choices.
The massive study, conducted at the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, monitored the diets of more than 5,000 Caucasian and African Americans in low-income, obesity-prone parts of Birmingham, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Oakland over a span of 15 years.
The purpose of the study, published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, was to detect dietary responses to a growing availability of grocery stores.
While the study confirmed conventional wisdom that increased proximity to fast food restaurants makes for more consumption of fatty foods, it challenged popular notions that greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods results in more nutritious diets.
Barry Popkin, lead author of the study, said that the takeway is that building a supermarket alone won't get people to eat healthier food.
"It's really other factors along with the availability that matters," Popkin said, noting that time, cost and cooking skills play equally important roles in encouraging healthy diets.
Others who support grocery store development, however, say the problem isn't just with access to grocery stores, but also that in low-income neighborhoods, the prices of healthy foods are often higher while the quality is lower.
Lark Galloway-Gilliam, the executive director of Community Health Councils, a non-profit community-based health advocacy organization, said she found the results a bit disconcerting.
"It's a little dispiriting," she said, adding that the way the results are articulated in the study make it sound as if "grocery stores don't make a difference."
She pointed to data and research that support the contrary, saying supermarkets are not the whole answer, but they are a necessary part of the solution.
Popkin stressed that if they were indeed a necessary part of the solution, they were insufficient to producing change. He suggested that public policy makers would do better to consider spending money on nutrition education and home economics programs than on subsidies to large supermarkets.
Allen in Culver City called in to say he thinks the real issue is time; people just don't have the time to cook at the end of the day. He feels Americans have largely lost this skill as public high schools have phased out home ec classes in recent years.
The study also emphasizes the importance of individual choice in food consumption, rather than the regulation of the commercial environment, bolstering the arguments of some who claim that changing the market is an inappropriate solution to the so-called obesity epidemic.
Rachel, a marketing strategy consultant in Marina del Rey, called to say that what the supermarkets need once they move into low-income neighborhoods is localized grocery marketing strategies that take into consideration the demographic they're serving. She suggested supermarkets attach recipes to food products, to help connect the dots and save people time.
Galloway-Gilliam agreed that what is on supermarket shelves today is probably not the healthiest food, but that--even with the junk food they stock-- supermarkets offer opportunities to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
"We are making these little baby steps toward a larger strategy," Galloway-Gilliam said, noting that stores such as Fresh & Easy are marketing low-calorie, preservative-free foods to families.
The findings have special relevance to Angelinos affected by Councilwoman Jan Perry’s 2008 placing a moratorium on opening new fast food restaurants—and offering incentives to new supermarkets—throughout her South L.A. district.
Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils, a non-profit community-based health promotion, advocacy and policy organization
Barry Popkin, lead author of the study; director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina; and former head of the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Science’s committee on the public health impact of food deserts