"Our goal is ambitious. It’s to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years." So said Michelle Obama in 2010, arguing that one of the reasons America has a huge problem with childhood obesity is that over 20 million Americans don't live with easy access of healthy food. If you can buy Doritos at a corner store but have to walk a mile for an apple, why would you choose the apple?
After a push from the government, a group of supermarkets pledged to open new stores in food deserts by 2016. A recent AP investigation found that, for the most part, those stores haven't yet been built, as retailers struggle to make margins in poorer neighborhoods. But that raises another issue: it's becoming clearer that grocery stores, on their own, can't solve the problem.
"So far, in the literature, we don't find a strong effect of food deserts on consumer diets," says Ilya Rahkovsky, a researcher at the USDA who published a 2015 paper on food deserts. In the most recent study, the researchers looked at people in poor neighborhoods who live more than a mile from a supermarket. It's true that they bought slightly less fruit and vegetables. But the lack of a supermarket couldn't explain the bigger differences in nutrition or the prevalence of obesity.
A series of other studies say the same thing. A study in five cities, looking at 15 years of data, found that there wasn't any connection between access to a grocery store and eating a healthy diet. Studies that looked at middle-schoolers and elementary students found that being near supermarkets didn't make students eat healthier.
The difference, instead, comes from demographics. Even when an economically diverse neighborhood shares a grocery store, people shop differently based on income. "Basically, even in the same store, poor and rich people buy very different food," Rahkovsky says.
That's not to say that cities shouldn't necessarily be trying to get supermarkets to move to poor neighborhoods; it seems intuitive that if someone only has access to a convenience store without a produce section, they aren't going to be eating many vegetables. It's just that supermarkets on their own aren't a complete solution.
"Building stores is one of the first steps on the path to providing healthier options," says Larry Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthy America, the organization that is pushing food retailers to enter food deserts. "There are many issues to consider from safe public transportation to growing demand through consumer education."
Though the AP report found that retailers were still less than halfway to their goal, Soler says that progress is happening. "Walmart, which has opened 392 stores in or around food-scarce areas since making a commitment to PHA in 2011, have proven that this is an issue that is solvable," he says. "Brown’s stores in Baltimore show that local and regional businesses can help, too."
The key will be figuring out exactly how to encourage people to buy healthier food once they have access. At Walmart, for example, one recent study found that people tend to still buy junk when they have a choice. Education alone isn't enough to make a shift.
"We basically don't have a very good solution at this point," says Rahkovsky. "We don't know a policy that would have a large positive effect. We're trying to find it, but so far we haven't."