Diet and Perceptions Change with Supermarket Introduction in a Food Desert, but Not Because of Supermarket Use

Published in: Health Affairs, v. 34, no. 11, Nov. 2015, p. 1858-1868

Posted on on November 10, 2015

by Tamara Dubowitz, Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar, Deborah A. Cohen, Robin L. Beckman, Elizabeth D. Steiner, Gerald P. Hunter, Karen Rocío Flórez, Christina Y. Huang, Christine Anne Vaughan, Jennifer Sloan, et al.

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Research Question

  1. What is the effect of a new supermarket on food shopping behaviors, diet, body mass index, perceived access to healthy food, and neighborhood satisfaction of residents living in a food desert?

Placing full-service supermarkets in food deserts--areas with limited access to healthy food--has been promoted as a way to reduce inequalities in access to healthy food, improve diet, and reduce the risk of obesity. However, previous studies provide scant evidence of such impacts. We surveyed households in two Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, neighborhoods in 2011 and 2014, one of which received a new supermarket in 2013. Comparing trends in the two neighborhoods, we obtained evidence of multiple positive impacts from new supermarket placement. In the new supermarket neighborhood we found net positive changes in overall dietary quality; average daily intakes of kilocalories and added sugars; and percentage of kilocalories from solid fats, added sugars, and alcohol. However, the only positive outcome in the recipient neighborhood specifically associated with regular use of the new supermarket was improved perceived access to healthy food. We did not observe differential improvement between the neighborhoods in fruit and vegetable intake, whole grain consumption, or body mass index. Incentivizing supermarkets to locate in food deserts is appropriate. However, efforts should proceed with caution, until the mechanisms by which the stores affect diet and their ability to influence weight status are better understood.

Key Findings

  • The PHRESH (Pittsburgh Homewood/Hill Research on Eating, Shopping, and Health) study found that a new full-service supermarket in a food desert in Pittsburgh led to some improvements in local residents' diet, as well as increased satisfaction with their neighborhood as a place to live.
  • However, the study found no significant improvements in residents' fruit and vegetable intake, whole grain intake, weight, or rates of obesity.
  • Surprisingly, the improvements in diet and neighborhood satisfaction were not significantly linked with frequency of shopping at the new supermarket; both frequent and infrequent shoppers experienced the same improvements.
  • The results suggest that continued federal financing of new supermarkets can potentially benefit residents' health and well-being.

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