Researchers at Yale University have found that healthy foods are significantly less available and that produce tends to be of poorer quality in low-income areas than in wealthier neighborhoods.
Two studies by research scientists at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity compared the availability and price of food in large and small food retailers across neighborhoods of varying income levels in New Haven, Connecticut. Using a standardized rating system, the researchers evaluated supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores, food-marts, and groceries to get a better understanding of the challenges facing food shoppers.
Rudd Center researchers found that low-income people face significant challenges when trying to shop for healthy foods. In an examination of 75 food outlets in New Haven, researchers showed that stores in lower-income neighborhoods stocked fewer healthier varieties of foods such as low-fat/skim milk, whole wheat bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables, than did retailers in wealthier neighborhoods.
Drawing comparisons to a 1971 study of food price disparities, Rudd Center researchers found that the distribution of supermarkets in lower-income neighborhoods in New Haven has improved significantly over the last 35 years. This is contrary to trends in many other urban areas where supermarkets have closed. In 1971, only small food markets could be found in lower-income areas, whereas today supermarkets account for the same 8% share of stores in both low- and high-income New Haven neighborhoods. Most importantly, the study shows, average food prices are now comparable across income areas.
Nonetheless, the research findings stress the need to improve access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhood, say the Yale scientists, because many residents of low-income communities tend to shop in small neighborhood stores that do not provide healthy options. A lack of access to healthy food options has been identified as an important driver of disparities in diet quality.
Current economic conditions foster a food environment that places the poor at the highest risk for unhealthful diets, obesity, and obesity-related diseases, stress the researchers. The majority of Americans consume insufficient quantities of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, yet low-income groups are particularly vulnerable to poor diet quality, they note, adding that policies are needed not only to improve supermarket access in low-income communities, but also to ensure that stores in underserved neighborhoods provide healthy options to consumers, particularly high quality fruits and vegetables and low-fat, low-calorie versions of popular foods.
Citation: Health Affairs, Sept. 10, 2008
New Rudd Center Research Examines Food Prices and Availability (.mp3)
Food Geography: How Food Access Affects Diet and Health (.pdf)
Neighborhood Groceries: New Access to Healthy Food in Low-Income Communities (.pdf)