Should we fill 'food deserts'?

Study: Having grocery store nearby doesn't make people eat healthier

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WASHINGTON — Across the country right now, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on an effort to eradicate so-called "food deserts," urban and rural areas where it's difficult, or even impossible, to purchase fresh, healthy food.

Philadelphia has, arguably, been the epicenter of that movement. Since the late 2000s, the city has invested millions in building new grocery stores and adding healthy food options to corner stores in lower-income areas of the city. Hundreds of stores have gotten on board with the movement, with corner store owners selling apples and oranges alongside their more-standard chips and candy. The city has used funds from the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund to further bolster these types of programs.

But while Philadelphia residents are noticing the new grocery options, they're not actually eating any healthier, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. The paper is important because it's one of a small handful of academic studies that looks at what happens to eating habits before and after new grocery options become available. And it shows that, six months after two grocery stores opened in Philadelphia food deserts, there was no noticeable difference in body-mass index or fruit and vegetable consumption.

In this study, researchers affiliated with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Penn State looked at more than 1,000 Philadelphia residents from different city neighborhoods with similar demographics. Some had a 41,000-square-foot supermarket put into their neighborhood, and all lived no more than 1.5 miles away from the grocery store.

People noticed that the new grocery store had shown up. But only about a quarter — 26.7 percent — of those who lived near the new grocery store began using the supermarket as their main food source. Among those who did adopt the new grocery store, there was no significant improvement in body-mass index or fruit and vegetable intake.

"This indicates that simply providing new food retail stores is insufficient to encourage the adoption of new stores as residents' main food stores," the study authors write.

The study only looks six months out after the new supermarket arrived, so it's possible that changes could surface at a later point, as more residents migrate toward the new grocery store.