Deserting the food desert?

Researchers from the RAND Corporation and the Los Angeles County Department of Health set out to examine whether one's proximity to fast-food outlets, convenience stores, small food stores, grocery stores, and supermarkets impacted one's intake of fruits and vegetables, sugar-sweetened beverages, and fast food; they also measured BMI and overweight status.

Published this month in Preventing Chronic Disease, the authors found essentially no evidence connecting the proximity of respondents' homes and food outlets to dietary intake or BMI among adults.  This is interesting, and certainly makes good headlines given a recent focus on food deserts, but isn't all that surprising.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • The study did NOT assess what these stores were selling nor did they look at the cost of items in each of the stores. 
  • The study did NOT evaluate how foods are marketed to individuals.  We know from previous research that unhealthy foods tend to be marketed more heavily to minorities.
  • The study did NOT research the ratio of fast-food and convenience stores to grocery stores and produce vendors in various neighborhoods, as noted by Harold Goldstein, Executive Director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
  • The study ONLY looked at consumption of fruits and veggies, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Roland Sturm, a senior economist at Rand and one of the authors of this research, has published multiple studies discounting the link between the food environment and one's diet.  While this study is helpful in identifying that access generally to food stores doesn't necessarily affect dietary patterns (at least those foods included in this study), it has the perhaps unintended consequence of headlines that tell us our focus on food deserts is misplaced. 

If anything, it reinforces that there's no silver bullet, that we need to look at what foods (not just stores) are accessible, how affordable the food is for those living in the community and perhaps more research on how, where and why people shop.  This study, if replicated in an urban setting where individuals aren't as dependent on cars as Los Angeles, could have significantly different results.  Just a hunch, but I'd imagine that the opening of a supermarket with healthy, affordable food in Ward 8 in DC would greatly change how people shop and eat in that area of the city.