Expert Commentary

Food deserts: How residents’ diets change after a neighborhood supermarket opens

2015 study published in Health Affairs that looks at how the diets of people who live in "food deserts" change after a neighborhood supermarket opens.


The issue: More than 29.7 million people in the United States live in a “food desert,” a low-income area where a substantial number of people lack access to a supermarket, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Residents often don’t have a car but must travel a mile or more to reach a store that sells fruit, vegetables and other whole foods. Policymakers have postulated that limited access to fresh, nutritious foods may contribute to obesity – a health crisis confronting communities nationwide.

An academic study worth reading: Diet And Perceptions Change With Supermarket Introduction in A Food Desert, But Not Because of Supermarket Use” published in Health Affairs, 2015.

Study summary: Researchers from the RAND Corporation, the University of Illinois and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied two low-income neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh area. They gathered baseline data in 2011, when both neighborhoods were food deserts. They gathered follow-up data from 831 households in 2014, a year after a supermarket opened in one of the two neighborhoods. In both 2011 and 2014, researchers asked study participants to recall the food and beverages they had consumed over the past 24 hours. They also asked questions about such things as body mass index (BMI) and food-purchasing practices.

Key takeaways from the study:

  • Residents of the neighborhood where the grocery store opened consumed fewer calories and less added sugar. Meanwhile, consumption of calories and sugar remained the same or increased in the neighborhood that did not get a supermarket.
  • On average, residents of the neighborhood with the supermarket ate 222 fewer calories per day after the supermarket opened compared to when they had no supermarket.
  • After the grocery store opened, there was no significant difference between the two neighborhoods in terms of residents’ consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • The overall diet quality of residents in the neighborhood that did not have a supermarket declined between 2011 and 2014. The diet quality of residents in the neighborhood where a supermarket opened did not change significantly.
  • Residents in the neighborhood with the supermarket reported higher neighborhood satisfaction and better access to health food in 2014 compared to 2011. There was no change for residents in the other neighborhood.
  • Residents’ average BMI remained the same in the neighborhood with the supermarket. The average BMI increased in the other neighborhood, but the difference was not significant.

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this issue:

  • A 2012 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Updated Estimates of Distance to Supermarkets Using 2010 Data,” examines census tracts, the location of supermarkets and households with automobiles.
  • The USDA’s Economic Research Service has created an interactive map that allows journalists to identify parts of the country that lack access to supermarkets, supercenters and other sources of healthy food.
  • A number of local and national non-profit groups are working to improve food access in low-income communities across the U.S. For example, Food Desert Action in the Chicago area introduced a mobile produce market. The First Nations Development Institute awards grants to Native American organizations that help improve food access for indigenous children.

Other research:

  • A 2015 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, “Healthy versus Unhealthy Suppliers in Food Desert Neighborhoods: A Network Analysis of Corner Stores’ Food Supplier Networks,” focuses on foods sold in corner stores in low-income areas of Baltimore.
  • A 2012 study by Michigan State University researchers examines how the supply of fruits and vegetables in low-income areas of Detroit affect the demand for such foods.
  • A 2012 study by the RAND Corporation finds no relationship between greater access to healthy food and improved diet or decreased BMIs among California youth.


Keywords: junk food, urban health, healthy food, food supply, food access

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