The Relationship between Healthy Food Access and Consumption

A recent blog post:   If You Build It, Will they Come? The Relationship between Healthy Food Access and Consumption

Over the past several years, the term “food desert” has become prevalent in nutrition research and policy and is used to describe areas with a lack of access to fresh, healthy foods. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food desert as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” Low-income census tracts qualify as food deserts if they have “at least 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store or 10 miles in non-metropolitan census tracts.”

Areas defined as food deserts may receive federal, state, and foundation funding to improve their access, whereas areas that lack the label have greater difficulty in qualifying for the same opportunities. However, many policymakers do not take into account the complex relationship between healthy food access and consumption.

The relationship between access and consumption

Many studies on fresh food access and consumption focus on distance to and/or density of food outlets in an area. Similarly, most public policies increasing access to healthy food focus on locating supermarkets in food deserts. However, living closer to stores that sell fresh foods may be necessary but not sufficient to improve healthy food consumption among lower-income individuals. There is evidence that access to healthy food includes multiple factors, including transportation to food outlets; convenience of purchasing and preparing fresh foods; affordability, quality, and variety of fruits and vegetables; nutrition knowledge; and cooking skills. The limitations of defining access may be one reason for mixed results in studies assessing the relationship between healthy food access and consumption.

Where do we go from here?

Most qualitative studies continue to point toward factors beyond geographic proximity in influencing consumption of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, such as food quality and cost. However, quantitative studies are more likely to focus on distance to grocery stores and their relationship with consumption. So, where do we go from here? Fortunately, individuals focusing on access to healthy food are recognizing the importance of asking communities’ opinions about these issues before jumping in head-on. Instead of coming at the issue with, “We know how to solve your problem” we are beginning to ask communities, “How do you think this problem can be solved?

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