If you build a supermarket, will they come?
July 11th, 2011
06:43 PM ET

If you build a supermarket, will they come?

Building supermarkets or grocery stores in so-called food deserts is not enough to improve the diets of people living in low-income or underserved neighborhoods, concludes a new study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study used data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study (CARDIA) that followed more than 5,000 adults, ages 18 to 30, for 15 years. The participants lived in one of four cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis,Minnesota; or Oakland, California.

"The findings for both supermarkets and grocery stores essentially suggest that we need multiple types of strategies to accompany environmental changes," says Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at Oregon Health and Science University and the lead author of the study.

"It's not enough to simply introduce a grocery store."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than 23 million Americans currently live in a food desert. The 2008 Farm Bill defined food desert as "an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities."

Various public policies seeking to eradicate food deserts focus on bringing supermarkets and grocery stores in to these typically underserved areas. Boone-Heinonen and her co-authors set out to investigate how much of an influence these available food stores have had on the diets of local residents.

They found that building supermarkets in low-income areas is not enough to effectively change the quality of a neighborhood's diet. However, the study did not consider corner stores, convenience stores, or bodegas in its analysis.

"It may be important not only to have supermarkets... but making sure they're offering appealing, healthy products that are priced in a favorable way and positioned in the store in a way that makes them easy to see," says Dr. Paul Simon, an epidemiologist with the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study's execution.

"If we don't focus on the surrounding environment, we're hitting our heads against the wall."

The study did find that reducing the number of fast food locations within a 3 kilometer distance from a food desert did decrease the amount of fast food consumed by men living in the low-income neighborhood. The same relationship could not be found among by low income women.

To see how close you live to a food desert, use the USDA's "Food Desert Locator."

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