News: CJ Exclusives

‘Food desert’ subsidies may not improve health, research says

Grants helping convenience stores upgrade refrigeration may expand choices but there's no guarantee customers will buy fresh food

A new state grant program seeks to make fresh produce available in underserved communities, but research suggests the government’s tactics won’t make people healthier.

The Healthy Food Small Retailer Program offers some stores up to $25,000 to buy refrigerators and other equipment to start selling produce. To be eligible, Small stores eligible to apply for the grants must be located in or near “food deserts.”

Food deserts are defined as zones where people live at least one mile from a full-service grocery store in urban areas, or 10 miles from one in rural areas.

The stores must also have less than 3,000 heated square feet and limited food selections for sale, according to The News & Observer. These stores, which can vary from gas stations to produce stands, must also accept SNAP and WIC, aka food stamps.

The General Assembly gave $500,000 to the Healthy Food Small Retailer Program in the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 budget cycles. It’s managed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Agriculture Department reports that six stores have received grants as part of a 2017 pilot program in the eastern part of the state. They include:

  • Black Rock Deli in Merry Hill
  • Stella’s I in Elizabeth City
  • Tina’s Country Cupboard in Kelly
  • Hwy 42 Grill in Elizabethtown
  • Food Mart in Jacksonville
  • One Stop Shop in Jacksonville

Local health departments and other grant programs assist the stores with sourcing food, marketing efforts, and consumer education.

The state agriculture department website explains that “convenient stores are often the main source for food in food deserts (areas with low household income and limited food access),” and “meeting the demand for healthier food in these areas can have a positive public health impact where it is needed most.”

Benchmarks for program success may develop in the future, a state agriculture department official says.

“We’re still putting all the pieces together,” said Ron Fish, assistant marketing director for the department who is supervising the program. [See editor’s note at end of story]

If making people healthier is the program goal, administrators may be disappointed by research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which found in 2016 that consumer proximity to supermarkets “has a limited impact on food choices.”

Further, “household and neighborhood resources, education and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity,” Reason magazine reported. Reason declared government food market intrusion a failure during the Obama administration, based in part on the research.

This year, researchers at N.C. State and Campbell universities discovered the price of fresh food, not its availability, most affected shopping decisions for residents of one Raleigh food desert.

“There’s been a lot of attention to food deserts in urban areas, and how those deserts may affect public health — but little attention has been paid to how the people who actually live in those areas feel they’ve been affected,” said Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology and co-author of a paper describing the work. “We wanted to get input from the residents themselves.”

The researchers surveyed stores and interviewed residents in the neighborhood. Residents said they would drive, take a bus, or catch a taxi to supermarkets outside their neighborhood to buy food for less than they could at the corner store.

“This study tells us that access to supermarkets does matter — people reported that they would eat more produce if they could shop more often,” Bowen says. “However, access is not the biggest factor affecting what people eat. The biggest factor is that many people simply don’t have enough money to spend on food.”

The North Carolina Alliance for Health addressed food costs in a 2015 video promoting a similar pilot program. A Greenville convenience store owner said produce had a higher profit margin than some unhealthy foods. A Winston-Salem store owner said he would sometimes offer discounts on fruit to teenagers in want of snacks.

The alliance says the state has 349 food deserts in 80 counties, home to 1.5 million residents.

Its director, Morgan Wittman Gramann, praised the new state program in a press release.

“This is a great first step in setting up a program that will bring healthy food into food deserts across North Carolina and is the first time that state funds have been invested in a program of this kind,” Gramman said. “We look forward to working with the General Assembly next year to fully fund this important initiative.”

This story was updated to include additional comment.