The One Food Myth We Were Totally Wrong About

Photo: David Grossman / Alamy
Did you know there are neighborhoods that don’t have access to grocery stores? If your proposed solution to this would be, “Well, duh, build a grocery store there,” you might be surprised to learn that doing so actually makes no difference, according to an NYU study published this February in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

"Food deserts," as such neighborhoods are called, are typically low-income areas that have virtually no supermarkets. The closest thing to a grocery store is something like what is pictured here — a deli or bodega. Studies have shown that these "deserts" are associated with higher levels of obesity and malnutrition, which can affect entire communities, including small children.
NYU set out to test the assumption that lack of access to grocery stores was behind diet-related health problems. The university studied a city-subsidized supermarket in the South Bronx community of Morrisania and examined the effects on residents’ eating habits. Researchers compared community members' purchasing tendencies and, in particular, children’s diets in Morrisania to equivalent data from a nearby neighborhood (Highbridge) where no supermarket had been added. While not altogether devoid of grocery stores, both communities are considered “supermarket high-need areas." The results? After a year, opening a new grocery store had not changed the neighborhood kids’ diets. These results are in keeping with a similar study in Philadelphia that focused on adults.

So, what’s going on here? In an interview with R29, the study’s lead author, Brian Elbel, pointed out that food habits are incredibly complicated. “You really need to [...] not look at a single policy as being the magic bullet.” What this study makes clear is that food access is not the only issue at play. Food deserts are also usually plagued by poverty, which is certainly the case in the South Bronx. Increasing access to fresh food does not guarantee that people have the money, let alone the time and knowledge, to take advantage of it. South Bronx food activist Tanya Fields has written, “I dislike the term 'food desert' [because] it often proposes large corporate grocery stores as a solution and often doesn’t encapsulate the reasons why these black-and-white solutions are so difficult for folks in working class/low-income communities.” In Fields’ view, the real problem is poverty, and solutions should be community-based rather than corporate.

“You can't just go and say, ‘Oh, here's some more food. Buy it,’” Kathy Kim, associate director of City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, told us in an interview. An alternative is to provide people with free or subsidized produce. For example, City Harvest offers Mobile Markets, outdoor produce-distribution centers where people living on low incomes can bring home free produce twice per month. Community partners, such as the Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center, often set up tables at the markets, which include cooking demonstrations.

The effects of food deserts are very real; imagine what your life would be like if your only food options were what you could find at your local 7-Eleven. Hopefully, this study's insight will serve as a call to action — to fight for access to healthy food, education around food, and food choices for all.
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