Researchers at the RAND Corporation had a chance to examine and challenge core assumptions about access to healthy food and community health in “food deserts”—where more than 23 million people in the U.S. currently live.
Food deserts are low-income neighborhoods, typically in urban areas, where produce and healthy foods are hard to come by, but convenience stores selling chips, soda and other junk food are plentiful. Public health experts have long connected these food deserts to higher rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions for the residents who live in these neighborhoods.
When a supermarket opened in a beat-up Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2013, it gave RAND a rare opportunity to look at the effects the store would have. What researchers found was surprising—and could change how we look at food deserts in communities across the country.
When the Shop ’n Save opened in the neighborhood, nicknamed “The Hill,” residents referred to it as a “little garden of Eden” due to its bountiful selection of fresh produce and dairy products. RAND researchers noted that the arrival of the grocery store meant that residents consumed, on average, 200 fewer calories per day, and that they ate less added sugar and drank fewer soft drinks and alcohol.
However, residents did not consume any more fruits and vegetables than before. And even more surprising was the fact that the health improvements were found in people who never even shopped at the new grocery store. Rather, researchers found that the mere existence of the store changed the culture of the neighborhood in a positive way.
From the RAND Review: “What changed? The researchers found a likely answer in a survey question they had asked residents before and after the store opened: How satisfied are you with your neighborhood? About two-thirds of Hill District residents said they were happy with their neighborhood before the store opened. Afterward, the number shot to 80 percent.”
These answers pointed to something that was difficult for researchers to measure previously: the psychological impact of the grocery store, rather than just the improvements to physical health it was having on residents.
This study represents the largest U.S. study on food deserts to date, and it gives public health officials extremely valuable data and insights on how to manage this issue in the future.