Focusing on Food Quality over Quantity When Bringing a Grocery Store into Food Desserts

In recent years, the medical and health professions have been increasingly pushing individuals to focus more on the quality of the foods they consume, over the quantity of those foods. There is nutrient dense food, i.e., foods that provide a high amount of nutrients, minerals, and antioxidants per calorie (fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, and fish), and then there are nutrient poor or empty calorie foods, i.e., foods filled with sugars and unhealthy fats (fast, processed, and packaged foods). Consuming these “nutrient poor” foods has been linked to health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, nutrient deficiencies, and diabetes. Despite this information, in the United States, the consumption of nutrient poor foods is extremely high. This problem seems easily fixable, if you want to live a healthy life free of these health conditions, choose nutrient rich foods over nutrient poor foods. But what if you are located in a food desert, areas where access to this nutrient rich food is hard to come by.

For these individuals, the major problem is not always a lack of food, it is a lack of quality, healthy, and nutritious foods. Food deserts are usually flooded with convenient stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in easy access to foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and high sodium levels. Even where these types of stores do provide healthier options such as fruits or vegetables, they are overpriced, in limited quantities, and of poor quality. Without access to healthy foods, a nutritious diet and good health seem out of reach.

Large-chain grocery stores and food establishments have tried to combat this by moving into these neighborhoods. While this is a step in the right direction for these establishments, it is important for them to remember that they need to provide quality, healthy, and nutritious food for these residents.

In order to create a better quality of living for residents of food deserts, its imperative that these grocery stores stock a variety of these nutrient rich foods at a reasonable price. When a grocery store moves into a food desert, but continues to supply, in large quantities, the same type of boxed, bagged, and nutrient poor food options that these residents already had access to, but at a cheaper price, are they really benefiting those residents? The answer is no. Instead, they are simply supplying in larger quantities the same type of foods that were already available. This issue has been prominent, for example, where Wal-Mart has opened in food deserts. While they may be supplying healthier options, and even at a reasonable price, they are also supplying large amounts of the processed foods that were already available, just cheaper. In the end, this is not helping the residents create a healthier lifestyle for themselves, if anything, it could be encouraging the opposite.

However, a stronger business model is seen when Whole Foods Market moves into food deserts. When they move into food deserts, they have in some instances provided the healthier options such as fruits and vegetables at lower prices to entice the residents of the neighborhood to purchase these options. They will also swap out the unhealthy options with their in-house brand “365” which is usually made with organic ingredients, and still at a reasonable price.

My suggestion to these large-chain grocery stores and food establishments is to tweak their business models when moving into food deserts to make sure they are truly focused on the quality of the food they provide in these areas. Whether its limiting the amount of unhealthy options, swapping them out for alternatives, or simply pricing the nutrient rich foods relatively similar or lower than the unhealthy options, there are many ways to make quality foods the choice for residents. Simply placing the store there without any consideration about what these individuals actually need, could result in continued poor choices for these residents and potentially an unsuccessful business.

Posted by Vivian DePietro – Research Fellow