The term “food desert” is used to refer to low-income, inner-city areas that lack traditional, full-service grocery stores. The concern is that residents of such neighborhoods — often minorities — have little choice but to buy food at convenience stores or eat at fast-food restaurants, with predictably dire health consequences. But the results of some past research haven’t always been clear: Greater proximity to supermarkets was not consistently correlated with better dietary habits or levels of fruit and vegetable consumption. Other studies have also drawn similar conclusions, and the relationship between obesity risk for children and local food choices is complex.
A 2012 study by researchers at Michigan State University published in Urban Studies, “Price and Expenditure Elasticities for Fresh Fruit in an Urban Food Desert,” examines the effect of availability of fruits and vegetables in Detroit on demand for these goods. The study used sales data from a nonprofit grocery store to measure price and expenditure elasticities for fresh fruits in a low-income Detroit community. Generally speaking, fruit is not as available in many urban areas, compared with suburban areas, and is often more expensive.
Key findings include:
- The data suggest that many consumers in food desert areas want more fruit but can’t afford it; the amount consumers spent (a proxy for income) plays a significant role in determining their purchasing behavior. When consumers spent more, their purchases of many fruits increased by an even greater amount: A 1% rise in spending increased banana purchases by 1.18%, oranges by 1.74%, apples by 2.15% and lemons by 1.26%.
- Similarly, if prices increased, fruit purchases dropped, but not as much as the price increase: For a 1% rise in prices, purchases of bananas fell by 0.33%, apples by 0.28%, and oranges by 0.54%. This suggests that demand for these fruits is relatively inelastic — even if prices go up, consumers will make it a special priority to get some amount of fruit in their grocery order.
- Compared to previous studies, this study found substantially smaller price elasticities and larger expenditure elasticities: “Within the fruit group, income plays a much more important role in the purchasing decisions of Detroit food desert residents than price compared with consumers more representative of the average American.”
- Because “increasing income and/or lowering price will increase the amount of fruit consumed … this implies that the obesity crisis could be positively impacted in food desert areas by offering a variety of suburban-priced [reasonably priced] fruit products.”
“The results show that if urban food desert consumers are given access to normally priced produce of acceptable quality, they will purchase it,” the researchers state. “The policy implications are clear: introducing neighborhood stores providing access to good quality produce at competitive prices could be an important component of increasing fruit consumption.”
Tags: nutrition, obesity