‘Food Desert’ Label Often Inaccurate: Lack of a Supermarket Does Not Cause Obesity and Diabetes, but Poverty Might

By Karen Nikos-Rose

Access to healthy food does not always relate to the presence of a nearby supermarket, but instead requires a deeper look at poverty, race and other factors in a community, a UC Davis study suggests.

Lack of a supermarket does not necessarily make a county a “food desert,” argues Catherine Brinkley, who studies food systems and community development.

The study shifts the conversation begun in the 1990s, in which “food deserts” were described as communities that were either sparsely populated or had too many low-income residents to support a supermarket. The past research said this lack of access led to health problems such as obesity and diabetes. The popular policy response then was to leverage public funds to establish a supermarket.

However, the new research finds there are many pathways to food access that include restaurants, shopping at smaller grocers, growing one’s own food, accessing a local food bank, purchasing food at farmer’s markets and traveling to large stores for bulk purchases.

“This research asks researchers and policymakers to move beyond the narrow focus on supermarket proximity and acknowledge the forces shaping the spatial inequities in healthy, affordable food access, namely income and race,” the study concludes.

The article, “Culturing Food Deserts: Recognizing the Power of Community-Based Solutions” was published in the journal Built Environment.

“We argue that the food desert term is imprecise,” said the study’s lead author, Catherine Brinkley, assistant professor of Community and Regional Development in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Researchers looked at 17 counties considered “food deserts,” which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as an area without a supermarket within one mile in an urban area and 10 miles in a rural area. Despite the label, residents of these “food deserts” had low levels of diet-related health problems, research showed.

There were many factors in the environment that kept supermarkets from locating in given communities, Brinkley said. These included reasons as varied as a lack of available land for supermarkets, and concentrated populations of wealthy individuals who preferred to keep the community small and supported locally owned markets.

Population characteristics also changed the equation: two counties with universities indicated that students do not purchase at supermarkets, but prefer street food, fast food and restaurants.

About half the counties had farmers’ markets or roadside farm stands. Most counties had food banks. Residents reported, as well, that they pooled their efforts to get transportation and share rides to access food and medicine in outside communities.

“Instead of focusing on supermarkets, we argue that it would be more empowering to engage communities in a conversation about what they are doing that works,” Brinkley said. “By overlooking residents’ other means of sourcing healthy food, policymakers may unintentionally cause further injustices in the local food system or miss an opportunity to augment an already existing low-cost locally based option, such as local street vending.”

More information

“Culturing Food Deserts: Recognizing the Power of Community-Based Solutions” (Built Environment)

Karen Nikos-Rose covers humanities, arts, and social sciences for UC Davis News and Media Relations and edits the UC Davis Arts Blog. Follow her at @UCDavis_KNikos.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *