Plant a Supermarket, Grow a Healthy Foodscape?

Superficial thinking begets superficial solutions. And superficial solutions don’t solve many problems. Yet again, we’re learning that this is the case with superficial thinking about food deserts. A new study in Health and Place finds that simply planting a supermarket in a food desert does little to address problems with access to healthy food.

Complex and Dynamic Food Systems

Madhumita Ghosh-Dastidar and colleagues conducted store audits and household surveys in two neighborhoods. They found:

The supermarket opening in a “food desert” caused little improvement in net availability of healthy foods, challenging the underpinnings of policies such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

Likewise, Francine Rodier and colleagues recently found that geographical access has little effect of fostering purchase of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Many other factors come into play.

The Power of a Great Metaphor

These findings add to the growing understanding about food deserts. These metaphorical deserts are likely more a symptom of deeper problems. They are not primary causes of poor nutrition in a neighborhood.

But the metaphor of food deserts is powerful. Just plant a supermarket or a farmers’ market and voilà! Those poor people now have access to healthy food. We can just blame them if they don’t take personal responsibility for eating right.

Reality is considerably more complex. As an economic development strategy, planting farmers’ markets and supermarkets can bring economic vitality to a neighborhood. Care is needed to assure that it’s more than just a gentrification strategy.

Displacing a socially and economically distressed population is not a solution for poor nutrition.

Click here for the study by Ghosh-Dastidar et al and here for the study by Rodier et al. For more perspective on food deserts and the economic issues they signal, click here.

Supermarket, photograph © Dean Hochman / flickr

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July 3, 2017