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Research and Innovation

Money, Not Access, Key to Resident Food Choices in ‘Food Deserts’

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A new study from North Carolina State University and Campbell University finds that, while access to healthy foods is a significant challenge, the biggest variable limiting diet choices in so-called “food deserts” is limited financial resources.

Food deserts are areas that are far from supermarkets, which typically have a greater variety of nutritious foods at lower prices than those found in the corner stores more common in food deserts.

“There’s been a lot of attention to food deserts in urban areas, and how those deserts may affect public health – but little attention has been paid to how the people who actually live in those areas feel they’ve been affected,” says Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology and co-author of a paper describing the work. “We wanted to get input from the residents themselves.”

The researchers took a two-pronged approach to addressing the issue.

They conducted an assessment of a neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., that the USDA has defined as a food desert. As part of a class, undergraduates mapped and surveyed all of the stores in the neighborhood, as well as the four nearest supermarkets.

They found that, while supermarkets offered a wide range of fruits and vegetables, neighborhood stores offered little or no fresh produce. What’s more, staple foods and healthier options that were available in the neighborhood cost, on average, 25 percent more than they did at supermarkets.

The researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with 42 neighborhood residents. The interviews focused on food habits, including how people shopped for food.

“We found that price was the most important factor in determining where most people shopped,” says Lillian MacNell, an assistant professor of public health at Campbell and lead author of the paper. “So, even though most people lived more than a mile from a supermarket – and half didn’t have a car – they still traveled outside of the neighborhood to shop at supermarkets.”

“This shouldn’t be counter-intuitive, but it does upend a lot of the literature on food deserts, which has assumed that most people simply shop at the nearest store,” Bowen says.

However, traveling outside the neighborhood to shop has consequences.

People without cars, for example, often reported taking a bus to reach a supermarket, and then hiring a cab to get home. This increased shopping time and expense.

“And, because stores aren’t nearby, many study respondents said they only shop once a month,” MacNell says. “Therefore, they can’t buy a lot of produce. If they bought more than they could eat in a few days or a week, it would go bad.”

Immigrants who participated in the study faced an additional challenge, reporting that they had to spend more time shopping in order to find the specific foods they were looking for.

“This study tells us that access to supermarkets does matter – people reported that they would eat more produce if they could shop more often,” Bowen says. “However, access is not the biggest factor affecting what people eat. The biggest factor is that many people simply don’t have enough money to spend on food.”

“So, while efforts to improve physical access to healthy foods are valuable, they don’t address the fundamental challenge of affordability,” MacNell says.

The paper, “Black and Latino Urban Food Desert Residents’ Perceptions of Their Food Environment and Factors That Influence Food Shopping Decisions,” is published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. The paper was co-authored by Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at NC State, and Annie Hardison-Moody, an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State. The work was done with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under grant number 2011-68001-30103.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Black and Latino Urban Food Desert Residents’ Perceptions of Their Food Environment and Factors That Influence Food Shopping Decisions”

Authors: Lillian MacNell, Campbell University; Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Annie Hardison-Moody, North Carolina State University

Published: March 13, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition

DOI: 10.1080/19320248.2017.1284025

Abstract: There is a lack of consensus on how we should measure and identify food deserts. Recently, some scholars have called for studies that incorporate the lived experiences of food desert residents themselves into the discussion. We interviewed black and Latino low-income female caregivers of young children living in an urban area classified as a food desert about how they shop for food. The women we spoke with talked about their motivations for choosing stores, as well as their experiences dealing with poor food access and an unequal distribution of food stores. We found that women cited price as the strongest motivator for choosing a store but found that a lack of transportation and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation also had significant effects on shopping behaviors. This study underscores the importance of qualitative, participatory approaches to food environment research.

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  1. It’s not getting into the store to buy the food,sometimes it’s just the transportation of the products is the issue.

  2. I have trouble getting to the store and only go once a month. One of the biggest factor we have is transportation and the finances keeps us from going to the store more than we go.

  3. I have a problem trying to get to the stores due to not having a vechile and just having back surgery and not aloud to do anything right now. We also live on a monthly check and by the time we pay our bills we barely have enough for toiletries

  4. I have no problem getting to stores to buy food. The problem is when you can not afford to buy the things that you need to eat healthy. I am a single parent and with the essentials like utilities, rent, transportation, and household expenses there is not really anything left, but to get food in itself to not starve.

  5. I’m almost 50 years old and I have lived in food desserts all of my life. The biggest hurdle I would say we faced growing up was transportation my mom did not drive. So we depended on getting a ride there and delivery driver to bring us back home. As a kid and teenager we received government assistance for food and also received WIC so this provided us with healthy options and plenty of food. My mom worked until she was deemed disabled so the limited resources was a strain. In addition I had grandparents who grew up in the south and they canned food in addition to growing everything you can think of in their gardens. So in my opinion now no matter where I have to travel for a deal and what I want I will go!

  6. i agree, people need more money to afford the more healthier foods, because now the more healthier foods are very expensive.

  7. People need to be able to have access to more money, and they can then have access to better food choices. Sometimes others can’t afford the things, that their suppose to be eating. By it taking so much time and money, people sometimes have to result to corner stores, public transportation, or even a cab. As Bowen stated, “The biggest factor is that many people simply don’t have enough money to spend on food.”

  8. I have transportation and find that I drive several miles to find the more middle eastern foods due to hubby being from syria. He requires certain things I normally can’t pick up locally. So we travel 30-50 minutes to go to the arabic store.

  9. I understand a lot of these people problems when you on a fixed income it’s hard to buy the fruits and vegetables you need because they are very expensive.Transportation also can be a problem especially if you rely on uber or a taxi.

  10. I believe that it is both. People don’t want to pay a lot for food but also don’t want to drive a long way to get them. Many people don’t have a car so its hard. I think I would chose the store that is close and has low prices. Even if its more than one store.

  11. I feel the biggest problem is not only stores being outside of the local neighborhoods, but the low income neighborhoods have the most thefts in these stores, which causes a great impact on the stores having to raise prices on some things in order to meet store budget. This also is a reason for our people not being able to purchase food at an affordable cost.

  12. I think that everything food related is going up in general. My kids love to eat fruits and it does get quiet expensive at times. I have a few grocery stores around which makes it easy to get what I need. I am of asian culture and what is tough for me is when I need to get to that store to buy what I need. It is about 20 min drive and I find myself sometimes substituting for things that I need. I tried to plant a garden last year to help save on costs and that did not go to well.

  13. I agree that more and more supermarkets are migrating out of the urban neighborhood. transportation can also be a problem. Actually, there are people who would travel far outside of their neighborhood for healthier food. what happen to the good old days when people planted gardens in their yards for fresh fruits and veggies. maybe that is what we should go back to doing. It will save money and time.

    1. To do that, one has to have a yard. Many folks, such as people living in apartments, don’t have yards to plant gardens in.

  14. Yes money transportation is a large problem in most low income communities. I am not a single parent nor do I have a husband or children, I am a Healthy women and like to stay healthy. the process of going back to school, not only to improve my education but also to get better pay in order to be able to buy the proper types of foods. A lot of supermarkets with a large source of healthy foods are not located in a lot of low income communities, so I will have to say that money is the biggest problem most people have.

  15. Buying food is one of the biggest expenses my family has every day. I have a picky 15 year old son and 2 daughters who eat pretty much anything. It’s a challenge to make sure your children are getting all the nutrients they need; especially having a picky child.
    I live in a small town, some may consider it a desert food town because there is only one supermarket and there is a corner store that is over priced and does not offer any fresh produce. If you do not have transportation it would be extremely challenging to grocery shop

  16. In the place that I live it is a very small town and we only have one store where we can go to buy food. The store only has a small selection of food and it has an even smaller choice of fruits and vegetables to choose from. The prices are outrageous. A lot of the time you will have to go over to the next town to get what you need at an affordable price.

  17. I also find the struggle with trying to obtain certain types of food. The supermarkets and grocery stores offer a wide range of healthy foods but their either to expensive or we dont want to travel to get them.

  18. I live in an environment close to numerous stores with difference in prices. Some stores are expensive and others are affordable. Despite the affordability ,is such a food healthy because the expensive ones are design to be healthy.With low income, it is difficult to make regular purchase of healthy food. Therefore, navigating through the process of buying less expensive food and expensive food should be planned based on one’s budget.

  19. Buying food is expensive I have a 15 years old child who loves to eat healthy food and buying organic food can cost you when you on a fix income so you have to budget every month. Sometimes I wish we had neighborhood stores near by where you want have to drive so far to the grocery store especially when you don’t have transportation

  20. I just hate shopping. I raised my grown children on mostly healthy cooked meals, now that I am older and i have a 8yr old son, I fear its more laziness and not wanting to cook that has made both of us start having an unhealthy diet. I figure now that i have to worry about my health, I am going to pay to eat healthy or pay for medical bills and prescriptions due to complications in my body from UN-healthy eating. Its hard when money is low and you need to eat, as well..This is something America need to work on as a whole.

  21. Neighborhood stores are about convenience for those who have no transportation. Which causes unhealthy food selections. Supermarkets give healthier food choices to choose from for those who are able to shop at a supermarket. You have two variables that people are faced with convenience and inconvenience. Convenience costs more and inconvenience saves more. There is always a solution for bringing healthier foods in neighborhoods and at a lower price.

  22. You really have to know where to go to find healthy food. Knowing that you are getting something good for your money will make you travel for it no matter the cost is how I see it.

  23. Having access to the foods that we can afford is a major factor. You have access to the foods that are more expensive. In this article, it really says that for some shopping for food is the same because once you pay for transportation you could have gone to the more expensive store.

  24. I also agree that money is an important part of where we shop and what we buy. However, I think in some urban areas healthy foods are not part of the daily diet and perhaps some form of education about nutrition would have a positive effect on food choices for this community.

  25. I agree we should go back to the old days and start preserving food it saves more money and time trying to shop.

    1. I believe canning your own food could also be a problem because this process is quite time-consuming. Both parents tend to work full time nowadays and this consumes most of your time and energy. If your time and energy allowed for this, it would be a good idea. Again, you must be able to get to a store and afford to buy large quantities in order to can them.

  26. Being a black single mom , i do find it hard to find good quality produce. Growing up in the country and having almost everything you ate home grown, i am very picky about what i eat, because nothing taste as good to me , as what i grew up on. I am lucky enough to receive SNAP but you have to shop wisely especially when you have a large family.

  27. Having healthy foods available is very important to raising a family. However it is a factor on how families especially single parent families shop due to finances an locations.

  28. Locations plays a big role as well. After spending money for transportation to the store and back if it take a taxi or the public bus, it cuts out money being spent on food.

    1. The problem that I had was not having access to a car, and being able to afford nutritious foods for me and my children. Our neighborhood stores do not offer wholesome foods, and you will have to travel outside your community to purchase food. Food is very costly, and knowing where to shop helps a great deal. Learning how to shop is key as well. Buying junk food is not healthy, learning how to shop for healthy eating will show you how to give you and your children a healthy start.

  29. We need to go back to the “old ways” of preserving foods. Let’s start with buying bulk and canning the vegetables or fruits, making jams and jellies. Yes, food costs a lot of money. Yes, when you buy bulk, you have to get it taken care of right away before spoilage. I live 14 miles out of town, so I can’t go to the store all the time, either. But, I can buy a bushel of green beans, can them properly, and have a quart or pint size jars available for a long time.

    1. The idea is that many people don’t have access to transportation to reach fresh produce. And those who can are still in a tough predicament, due to them finding it cheaper to choose the unhealthy option. Additional buying in bulk is not always an opinion when someone has a limited budget.

    2. I am a single mom and always have been, so I understand the troubles when it comes to buying food. Locations are a huge factor with me, especially cause I do not have any form of transportation, except friends and family. In my experience, if money is a problem then buying in bulk would be difficult, as well as canning or jarring the items I buy. If I don’t have the money for transportation I do not believe having the means to store bulk, even with available resources would be possible.

  30. I don’t feel that way I live on a supplements pay check that I worked for and became disable. I’m not on a special diet access is not important I have that. Shopping for food is no problem. The problem is what they want to eat. I eat a lot of fruit and veggies. Today’s society live off of micro wave food a quick fix for hungry. They don’t want to fix a proper health meal for themselves or children.

    1. How much is your supplement income, I hear people complaining about their income which is 1500 dollars, I get 831 a month which makes buying fruits and veggies quite difficulty

      1. After child support comes out of my check, insurance and taxes, I rarely have a check over $100 and that’s for 2 weeks. Try living off of that with two teenagers at home.

  31. Having access to something and being able to afford are two different things. I have access to several million dollar homes;however , I cannot afford any of them.

    1. Indeed! Precisely the point made by the researchers. As noted above: “This study tells us that access to supermarkets does matter – people reported that they would eat more produce if they could shop more often,” Bowen says. “However, access is not the biggest factor affecting what people eat. The biggest factor is that many people simply don’t have enough money to spend on food.”

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