Food Deserts Are Just One Aspect of a Larger Inequality Problem

Where you live can have a lot to do with how you live, as this vacant house in Camden, New Jersey, so well communicates. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

About five years ago, there was an announcement that Camden, New Jersey would get a second full-service grocery store in this food desert where more than 75,000 people live. The store would have been on the outskirts of the city and not easily accessible to many of the city's residents without a car, but it would have been a way for local people to have more food options.

I say "would have been" because that grocery store never materialized, and the residents of Camden still have only one full-service grocery store within the city limits. City Lab reports that a new study by economists at New York University, Stanford University and the University of Chicago suggests that even if that second store had opened, it wouldn't have done much to alleviate the nutritional divide that exists between the residents of Camden and the residents of my own middle-class suburban town, which is less than 10 miles away from Camden.

The study showed, unsurprisingly, that food deserts are disproportionately found in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and they are part of the problem of nutrition inequality. However, they're not the main problem — or even as big of a problem — as originally thought. When researchers looked at less-advantaged neighborhoods, including food deserts where new supermarkets had opened, they found they had "little impact on the eating habits of low-income households." People mostly continued to purchase the same foods they had before the supermarket opened as did people who moved from a lower income neighborhood to a higher income neighborhood. In fact, access to stores with more nutritious options made only a 5 percent difference in nutritional choices.

Why, when given the ability to purchase an array of nutritious foods, are people not reaching for more sweet potatoes and fewer potato chips? The study says that it's more than an inequality in access to grocery stores that causes poor and low-income people to eat "cheaper, high-calorie, less nutritious" diets. Nutrition inequality is the result of inequality in several aspects of their lives.

Income inequality

The front of cereal boxes frequently make health claims that can be confusing. (Photo: Mike Mozart [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

"Ultimately, more than 90 percent of the fundamental difference in America's food nutrition has more to do with class than location," writes Richard Florida in CityLab. Nutrition inequality doesn't just happen in cities; it happens across broad regions of the country. There's an "unhealthy eating belt" across the Midwest and South. The East Coast, West Coast, and Pacific Northwest have healthier eating belts. Those regions also have larger populations of people with higher incomes.

That's not to say there's no nutrition inequality in the healthier eating belts. Camden is firmly planted on the East Coast and just 10 miles away from suburban towns like Moorestown, New Jersey, which frequently makes lists of the best places to live in America — and the price tag to live there is commensurate.

Wherever there is inequality among socio-economic classes, the study suggests, there is nutrition inequality as well. The study also found that when healthier foods were available in low-income areas, they cost a little bit lower on average than they did in higher-income areas. It also found that the price gap between healthy foods and less nutritious foods is not as high as people think.

Income inequality plays a part, but even with that, the ability to purchase nutritious food exists.

Educational and nutritional knowledge matter

grocery shopping, reading labels
Better education, both in general and in-depth on nutrition, makes for consumers who make more nutritious choices. (Photo: LADO/Shutterstock)

Educational inequality always plays a part in nutrition inequality. Those who are better educated eat a more nutritional diet, to the tune of 20 percent more, according to the study. Those who have a better education about nutrition specifically are an additional 7 percent more likely to choose more nutritious foods.

The authors of the study suggest that better nutrition education and information about healthy eating could be more important in improving the nutrition of people on the lower end socio-economic scale than eliminating food deserts. Armed with information and knowledge, people may make healthier decisions no matter where they're purchasing food or no matter what their income level.