Distance to Store, Food Prices, and Obesity in Urban Food Deserts

Published in: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, v. 47, no. 5, Nov. 2014, p. 587-595

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2014

by Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar, Deborah A. Cohen, Gerald P. Hunter, Shannon N. Zenk, Christina Y. Huang, Robin L. Beckman, Tamara Dubowitz

Research Questions

  1. What are the relationships among distance to stores where residents of two urban foods deserts shop, food prices at these stores, and consumers' obesity?
  2. How do in-store food displays differ between low-price and high-price stores and how do these differences influence purchasing behavior?

BACKGROUND: Lack of access to healthy foods may explain why residents of low-income neighborhoods and African Americans in the U.S. have high rates of obesity. The findings on where people shop and how that may influence health are mixed. However, multiple policy initiatives are underway to increase access in communities that currently lack healthy options. Few studies have simultaneously measured obesity, distance, and prices of the store used for primary food shopping. PURPOSE: To examine the relationship among distance to store, food prices, and obesity. METHODS: The Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping, and Health study conducted baseline interviews with 1,372 households between May and December 2011 in two low-income, majority African American neighborhoods without a supermarket. Audits of 16 stores where participants reported doing their major food shopping were conducted. Data were analyzed between February 2012 and February 2013. RESULTS: Distance to store and prices were positively associated with obesity (p<0.05). When distance to store and food prices were jointly modeled, only prices remained significant (p<0.01), with higher prices predicting a lower likelihood of obesity. Although low- and high-price stores did not differ in availability, they significantly differed in their display and marketing of junk foods relative to healthy foods. CONCLUSIONS: Placing supermarkets in food deserts to improve access may not be as important as simultaneously offering better prices for healthy foods relative to junk foods, actively marketing healthy foods, and enabling consumers to resist the influence of junk food marketing.

Key Findings

  • Distance to stores where people shopped and prices at those stores were both independently associated with obesity status of the shopper.
  • However, when distance to stores and food prices were jointly modeled, only prices were significant in predicting obesity.
  • Higher food prices predicted a lower likelihood of obesity.
  • Although low- and high-price stores did not differ in the availability of fresh produce, snacks or junk foods, they differed significantly in their display and marketing of junk foods relative to healthy foods.
  • On average, high-price stores had almost three times more displays to promote healthy foods compared to low-price stores.
  • Conversely, low-price stores had more displays to promote junk food relative to high-price stores.
  • These differences in how food is marketed may account for the result that shoppers at high-price food stores were less likely to be obese.

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