Some have argued that the elimination of food deserts is key in the fight against obesity and health disparities.
The USDA defines food deserts as low income areas that require residents to travel more than one mile to access a supermarket.
According to researchers at Harvard School of Public Health, “Low income residents may have difficulty affording transportation costs to the supermarket located outside of their immediate vicinity, thereby limiting access to food options” .
In agreement with this idea are researchers who published in Urban Studies, who state “A growing body of literature has established that food deserts are associated with lower quality diets and higher rates of obesity” .
One reason that researchers have used to support this claim is that residents without access to supermarkets are left to depend on local convenience stores, which typically do not carry fruits and vegetables. By providing access to healthy food, it is presumed that consumers will increase consumption of fruits and vegetables which are associated with healthy diets and lower risks of obesity and associated diseases.
As a result, policies have primarily focused on eliminating food desserts. For example, in 2010 First Lady Michelle Obama, along with U.S. Congress, proposed the Healthy Food Finance Initiative that would bring affordable, nutritious food to areas of low access and low income . In addition, states like Pennsylvania have provided incentives and grants to encourage grocery store expansion in low-income communities, with other states following by example .
These policies have aimed at improving food and health disparities by providing access to healthy nutritious foods. Furthermore, policymakers hoped that disadvantaged communities would adopt a healthy lifestyle and leave behind their dependency on processed foods.
What happens when its no longer a Food Desert?
Evidence has shown weak support for government strategy effectiveness in eliminating food deserts to improve diet quality and reduce obesity risks.
Contrary to the belief that adding supermarkets would lead to an increase of purchasing fruits and vegetables, research has revealed that consumers are reluctant to purchase healthy foods because of high prices.
In an article published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, “Two studies found no association between distance to the store where people did their major food shopping and BMI” . One reason for this could be that research has shown that the high price of healthy foods, in low-income community markets, create a barrier to the access of healthy foods .
Although access to healthy foods is beneficial, it is important to consider that the communities in which markets serve are disadvantaged in the economic sphere. If the cost of fruits and vegetables do not meet consumer budgets, they will not purchase them.
In one study among urban food desert participants, consumption of fruits increased more than 0.5 per cent when the cost was decreased 1 per cent, indicating that the price of fruit influenced their decision on whether they were willing to purchase it or not . In a another study, evidence suggested that consumers in low-income communities were willing to travel outside of their neighborhood in search of better prices, despite having a grocery store nearby .
Living in a Food Mirage
To further support that prices play a key role in the consumption of healthy foods, the term “food mirage” has been used to describes low-income communities with access to supermarkets but with financial barriers to access those healthy foods .
In a study done by researchers at Portland State University, a food mirage was examined in a neighborhood where residents living in poverty were surrounded by new grocery stores . Researchers found that of the 81 percent of residents living in poverty they surveyed, 61 percent of them lived in moderate or extreme food mirage and traveled more than 1.8 miles past their neighborhood grocery store in search of better prices .
In communities where government incentives have created an opportunity to attract grocery stores, such as in Philadelphia, stores have overlooked the importance of providing affordable food. Despite food policy efforts to provide physical access to grocery stores, low-income consumers are discouraged from purchasing healthy foods that are priced beyond their food budgets, indicating that the main priority for low-income consumers is the affordability of foods.
Chips are cheaper than Kale
In addition to healthy foods being too costly, there is the challenge with unhealthy calorie-dense foods being too low-cost, making them the top choice for consumers with a low income.
As the cost of producing sugar and additives goes down, the lower the cost will be to sell those foods. In a study at the Center for Public Health at University of Washington, results indicated that the as the cost of sugar decreased over time, due to the increase of corn syrup, the consumption of processed food rose among those living in poverty .
In other words, consumers with low food budgets found processed foods more easily accessible than expensive produce. Foods containing a high amount of fat, sugar, and refined grains provide more dietary energy at a much lower cost than fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
Growing evidence indicates that policymakers must take into consideration that in addition to proximity, price influences consumer behaviors in low-income communities.
Accessibility for All
As I have shown, it’s a lot more complex than just providing access to healthy food. Even if you eliminate a food desert, can everyone afford what is being provided?
Nutritious food not only has to be psychically accessible but financially accessible for all.
   Breyer, Betsy, and Adriana Voss-Andreae. “Food Mirages: Geographic And Economic Barriers To Healthful Food Access In Portland, Oregon.” Health & Place, vol. 24, 2013, pp. 131-139.
 Drewnowski, Adam. “Obesity And The Food Environment: Dietary Energy Density And Diet Costs.” American Journal Of Preventive Medicine, vol. 27, 2004, pp.154-162.
  Ghosh-Dastidar, Bonnie, et al. “Distance to Store, Food Prices, And Obesity In Urban Food Deserts.” American Journal Of Preventive Medicine, vol. 47, no. 5, 2014, pp. 587-595.
    Lin, Biing-Hwan, et al. “The Roles Of Food Prices And Food Access In Determining Food Purchases Of Low-Income Households.” Journal Of Policy Modeling, vol. 36, no. 5, 2014, pp. 938-952
  Weatherspoon, Dave, et al. “Price and Expenditure Elasticities for Fresh Fruits in an Urban Food Desert.” Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.), vol. 50, no.1, 2013, pp. 88-106.