A Second Look at Food Deserts: Is Increased Access the Answer?


Recently, some studies have been published with findings that contradict our understanding of food deserts. The New York Times article where this is covered cites two studies. One published last March that used national data (multiple locations) found that poor urban neighborhoods had more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more wealthy areas, but also had more grocery stores. This study also did not find a connection between proximity of grocery stores and fast food venues to child BMI or eating habits. Additionally, a study on California youth did not find a relationship between proximity of grocery stores and fast food venues and  BMI and eating habits.

It’s tempting to jump to conclusions from research studies like these. After all, that is what they are for. However, the concept of food deserts was not created out of nowhere. There is data supporting the existing of food deserts and the connection between food access and health outcomes. See this link for a great literature review if you’re up for it (see pg.s 51-59). One thing I noticed in the existing research, though, is that while there might be an association between proximity of fast food and grocery stores and health outcomes like BMI and fruit/vegetable intake, the connection is small. The difference is on the order of about half a serving of produce or one BMI point, depending on which study you look at.

So, now that I know some of the facts, here are my initial thoughts:

  • Both of the studies only looked at kids and adolescents. Would the findings be different with adults?
  • One of the studies centered only on California. The higher number of grocery stores in low income neighborhoods may have something to do with the demographics and food culture of California.
  • The nation-wide study included urban, suburban, and rural regions. No wonder low income urban areas had more grocery stores when compared to rural and suburban areas! They are comparing oranges to apples.
  • All grocery stores are not created equal. It is common for the same big box chain to have very different produce available in their stores in low income neighborhoods compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods. I know that there is a difference in my neighborhood. I go to the wealthier Kroger for a better selection.
  • Finally, social science research is dirty, and conflicting findings in research are very common. Usually this is caused by a variety of other factors that are having an effect that the research study did not look at. In the case of the association between the proximity of grocery stores and health outcomes, some of the factors are likely the high price of produce, lack of time, our culture’s preference for processed foods, and lack of knowledge of how to cook and eat fresh foods.


I don’t know the answer, but I know that there is no such thing as a panacea for a complex problem such as unhealthy eating. There needs to be a multi-pronged approach including increased access to healthy foods, less access to fast foods, better pricing of healthy foods, education about how to cook and eat healthy foods, and an overall change in our food culture.


Ilana Barach is an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Presbyterian Hunger Program, working on food access and security in Indianapolis. When she’s not thinking about food, she enjoys tearing through books, yoga and meditation, and anything outdoors.