Understanding the role of food store access in shaping food choices

by Leah Sosland
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 Food
Consumers with poor access to food stores are forced to depend on stores with fewer choices or higher prices.
 
WASHINGTON — A variety of components factor into what food a person will buy. The importance of health, taste, prices and convenience are all components that might influence which foods a person chooses to purchase. These considerations alone, however, do not determine which foods consumers will purchase, according to a May 2 article on Amber Waves, an on-line publication of the Economic Research Service of the US Dept. of Agriculture.
 
Researchers with the ERS found that consumers with poor access to food stores are forced to depend on stores with fewer choices or higher prices. These people are likely to opt for less healthy food choices, which may lead to poor diets and conditions such as obesity or diabetes, according to the study. At all levels of government, there has been an increase in the number of initiatives popping up to improve food store access in neglected or underserved areas.
 
Research obtained from the USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) concluded that even households without access to a car tend to shop for food at larger stores that are further from their closest food store. Even so, shopping at larger, more distant stores had only trifling positive effects on the dietary quality of their purchases, the researchers found. Additionally, the dataset likely under-sampled minority, poor and less educated consumers — precisely those who are more vulnerable to being affected by limited food access.

 Prices
Prices are a primary aspect in determining what foods consumers purchase. 
 

For households with severe financial constraints, prices are a primary aspect in determining what foods they purchase. The shoppers who lacked resources were much more cognizant of food prices and less so of food store access, according to the researchers. When both price and demographic factors were considered, the impact of food access was even more insignificant. Price conscientiousness may account for households passing the store closest to them for ones that offer lower prices.

The Amber Waves article examined two recent studies that tested how dietary choices are affected when a new supermarket opens in “food deserts,” areas with poor access to grocery stores. Research from the Rand Corp. found residents in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood with a new supermarket consumed fewer calories and added sugars than those in a nearby, demographically similar neighborhood that lacked a supermarket. However, the changes were likely due to other factors, as residents who used the new store had similar diets to those who did not. Additionally, fruit and vegetable consumption actually decreased in both neighborhoods, the researchers said.

The results could be attributed to elements of store choice besides proximity. When a new store is built, people will shop there only if it offers the products and prices of which shoppers approve. The store must also compete with existing stores that are further away but close enough to attract customers. Still, even if the new stores do attract most of the neighborhood households, improvements in diet quality are not guaranteed, the researchers said.

 Market
A more effective way of encouraging healthier choices may include lsubsidies on fruits and vegetables.
In the second experiment conducted in Pittsburgh, 68 percent of residents in the new-store neighborhood utilized their new grocery store, but their diet quality was no better than their neighbors who continued to shop at their usual store.

The results indicate that improving healthy food access alone will not suffice in attempting to impact consumer diets or majorly reduce diet-related diseases. Options for more effective means of encouraging healthier choices may include lowering transportation costs, subsidies on fruits and vegetables, and educational campaigns, the researchers said.

High product prices coupled with limited incomes, limited consumer knowledge about nutrition, and various food predilections are perhaps more central in determining what foods shoppers will purchase than are poor access to stores.

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