Food deserts: poor, urban areas with limited access to supermarkets. Food deserts were a popular subject of social policy research in the U.S. over the last decade that linked limited supermarket access with high rates of diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension. The research findings awakened a public consciousness about the issue and started an imperative to intervene across the nation.

The concept of food deserts drew attention to racial and economic inequalities in accessing healthy, affordable foods. It resonated with a variety of stakeholders and motivated coalitions to bring new supermarkets into poor urban communities. The concept, however, implied only one solution to the problem of limited food access: more supermarkets. This missed a variety of other impacts on a person’s ability to get healthy food. Despite considerable investment over the years, we are in a situation now where we must develop a more holistic approach to truly address the challenges that have come to light as part of the food desert phenomenon.

What You Need To Know

Through the study of food deserts in the Philadelphia, Pa., area we’ve learned that common assumptions about food shopping that are part of the food desert model are actually incorrect. The success of opening supermarkets in food deserts is limited by a number of factors related to how people shop in these communities. For example:

  • All supermarkets are not the same
  • Most low-income people do not shop at the closest supermarket
  • Most people shop at multiple stores
  • People shop at different types of stores for different types of food products

Underlying the research is the fundamental principle that low-income shoppers want the same shopping experience as middle-income and upper-income shoppers. They want, and will pursue, fresh products, clean stores and good customer service.

New Solutions

To be successful, new policies must recognize that human health behaviors don’t change easily and supermarkets, or lack thereof, are only part of the issue. Policy must respect that people deserve to make choices for themselves and low-income households want what all households want: options. Any policy that restricts what and where people can redeem benefits such as SNAP, or limits what foods they can buy, will not help solve the problem. New policies should:

  • Have local, state and federal entities helping to finance new supermarkets where private investment is lacking
  • Align investment in place-based resources like supermarkets with investment in assistance programs
  • Subsidize the purchase of healthy foods and create incentives for low-income households to buy foods like produce
  • Get the support of the supermarket industry
  • Get the support of the food and beverage industries to create and market healthier foods

Download PDF of Key Points

Beyond issues of nutrition and chronic disease, the way people acquire food relates to our broader sense of identity as consumers and providers for our families, as well as our sense of pride in our community. Food shopping and eating are integrated into the rest of our lives—socially, culturally and economically. Holistic thinking about health and well-being that extends beyond financing supermarkets is essential to address the challenges that have gained attention as part of the “food desert” phenomenon.

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About the author

Amy Hillier, PhD

Dr. Amy Hillier is an Assistant Professor in City and Regional Planning in the School of Design and holds a secondary appointment in SP2. She teaches classes in geographic information systems (GIS), research, and statistics in city planning, social work, public health, and urban studies. Dr. Hillier studies geographic disparities. Her research applies geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis methods to housing and health topics. Specifically, she has studied historical mortgage redlining, affordable housing, housing abandonment, and childhood obesity. Dr. Hillier is a Senior Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and Center for Public Health Initiatives.
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