© 2022 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Poverty not sole indicator of food deserts

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

Did you ever realize how the stores in your neighborhood influence what you eat?  If you're on a tight budget and don't own a car, your food choices are limited to items you can buy within walking distance. Fresh fruits and vegetables aren't usually available at the corner convenience store, and if they are, they're expensive. When the nearest full service market is miles away, eating healthy is a challenge. 

This week on Take Care, Dr. Kelly Bower discusses a new study from Johns Hopkins that found racial makeup determines the food access in a neighborhood. Bower is the lead researcher for the study and also an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Kelly Bower.

The study found that the poorest neighborhoods have the least amount of access to supermarkets. But Bower said she thinks many would not expect that even when comparing equally poor neighborhoods, the predominant race of a neighborhood still affected the number of supermarkets in that area.

“What we found that I think is probably more surprising to listeners is that apart from the level of neighborhood poverty, we saw that urban black neighborhoods have the very fewest supermarkets. So we were able to compare equally poor urban black neighborhoods to equally poor urban white neighborhoods and what we found was that the poor black neighborhoods had the very fewest supermarkets,” Bower said.

Not having supermarkets or grocery stores in an area can create a food desert, where the residents cannot easily access a variety of fresh and healthy foods. This creates another problem for residents of these neighborhoods, who may already be struggling to get by.

“We were able to see that there was this sort of double disadvantage,” Bower said. “So a neighborhood that is poor is disadvantaged in its access to supermarkets but then in addition a neighborhood that, just simply because the neighborhood is predominantly African-American, or predominantly Hispanic, they are also at a disadvantage related to their access to supermarkets.”

Bower, whose background is in nursing, says a lack of supermarkets in the area can have a big impact on the overall health of the people in a neighborhood. Especially since some residents may already be at a greater risk for certain conditions, like obesity.

“Our study didn’t look at obesity as an outcome, but there is a really strong body of research that has demonstrated that the more supermarkets that are available in a neighborhood, the lower the rate of obesity is in the residents of that neighborhood,” Bower said. “So, I think most in our country realize that we are facing a really severe obesity epidemic, and as you mentioned, the rates of obesity are very highest amongst our black and Hispanic populations.”

Bower said that residents of neighborhoods located in food deserts can take measures to remedy this problem. Getting involved in the community by creating neighborhood gardens, and contacting local officials about the lack of food options in an area are just a few ways residents can do this.

Other studies have found that more access to supermarkets alone cannot eliminate the problems associated with a food desert, but Bower said she believes it’s up to public officials to take initiatives to make sure their people do have access to healthy and fresh food options.

“Public policy makers certainly need to be thinking about ways to bring business to communities, and create communities where there is really quality public infrastructure where businesses would be encouraged or would want to locate,” Bower said. “I think that we have to make it sort of a win-win situation for the communities, but also for the businesses.”