The Food Desert Dilemma

We have recently discussed in class the concept of a food desert and what impact it has on both diet and nutrition. To combat the urban food deserts, activists have turned old, run down corner stores into bright new venues that sell fresh produce. By providing fresh fruits and vegetables one would assume that nutrition and health would begin to improve. However, this is not always true. As Stephen Matthews, professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University surprisingly noted, “We don’t find any difference at all. … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.” Professor Matthews and his colleagues recently conducted a survey of a low-income community in Philadelphia. They surveyed the residents both before and after the opening of a brand new supermarket. Although most residents knew it existed and offered healthy produce, only 26% said they regularly shopped there. “The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come,” noted Stephen Matthews. Experts like Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles believe that the problem lies in breaking people’s routines and a lack of knowledge about healthy food preparation. “The next part of the intervention is to create demand,” he says, “so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar.” Ortega’s ultimate goal is to raise demand for healthy foods as well as increase access to promote a healthier lifestyle among communities. Only time will tell if these goals will ultimately succeed.