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No Quick Fix For Food Deserts

A new study finds that simply opening stores that offer fresh produce doesn't mean residents in food deserts will change their eating habits.


Photo: Matt Hannon (Flickr)

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative of 2010 gives incentives to groceries to open in low-income areas or stock more produce at smaller stores.

Despite recent efforts to introduce fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods — where fast food restaurants far outnumber grocery stores — changing dietary behavior requires more than providing access to healthy foods.

In a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, researchers interviewed residents in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood where a new grocery store opened.

The study found that only a quarter of the residents regularly shopped at the store six months after its opening, disappointing advocates of “if you build it, they will come.”

National Initiative

The grocery store opened with funding from the Healthy Food Financing Initiative of 2010, a national effort to supply fresh produce to areas in short supply.

Modeled after a program launched in Pennsylvania in 2004, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative provides incentives to grocery stores opening in “food deserts,” low-income neighborhoods where a lack of healthy food options corresponds with high rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

But How Do You Cook It?

In addition to making healthy foods more available, some claim that education about how to prepare those foods is needed.

UCLA has launched a project that provides cooking demonstrations and educational posters in areas of East Los Angeles. Feedback has been positive, but it is still too early to tell whether the program is making any statistically significant impact.

Read More:

  • It Takes More Than A Produce Aisle To Refresh A Food Desert (NPR)
  • Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem (Slate)
  • Siting markets in ‘food deserts’ no quick cure for obesity, study says (Los Angeles Times)
Liz Leslie

Liz Leslie is a journalist based in Chicago. When she's not writing about food, she's likely eating food. Or dreaming about food.

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  • Jennifer Jane

    Hello Liz Leslie,

    I am a student with the University of New England’s MSW program. Myself and my group have been researching healthy food access and the ability to afford these foods. Throughout our research we have all come to the same conclusion, despite access through initiatives like the HFFI, Green Cart initiative, or localizing farmer’s markets, there is a need to educate on how to cook these foods. Your post is exactly what we were thinking needed to be revisited as factors in making the HFFI and impact of HFFI more successful and efficient.

    In addition to the education issue, we also felt that being able to afford these foods in general is also an issue. If these stores are being opened in low income areas, how do we expect these individuals to keep up with the higher prices of healthy food, despite access? We felt that there would have to be some type of lower overhead cost to the store owners to purchase the healthy foods, so that they may sell the foods for more reasonable costs?

    The local farmer’s markets in my area, that is upstate New York, have great prices at a high quantity, which I assume is because they harvest and grow themselves, there is little packaging or processing so they can avoid those costs. What do you think about this issue?

    Also, I find that with the very large refugee population in my area, like Burmese and Somalian, that they base their idea of healthful foods on freshness. The clients that I work with from these cultures not only find their fresh foods at specialized ethnic markets, but they utilize the farmer’s markets as well. However, some of our fruits and vegetables are items they are not familiar with and so I think this population in particular would seriously benefit from the education factor. What do you think ?

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