Click, click, cook: Online grocery shopping leaves ‘food deserts’ behind

Having groceries delivered as part of the federal government’s SNAP program increases access to healthy food in underserved communities, a Yale study finds.
An illustration of a woman buying groceries on her smartphone

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

There’s a new path out of the “food desert,” and it’s as close as the nearest Internet connection.

A Yale University analysis found that most people in “food deserts” in eight states would increase their access to healthy, nutritious food if they purchase groceries online and had the food delivered as part of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The analysis showed that online grocery delivery systems already cover about 90% of food deserts — places where access to healthy food is limited — in the eight states: Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

If you live in a food desert, online grocery delivery really stands out as a way to get healthy food that potentially can save your life,” said Eric Brandt, M.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Yale and lead author of a study published online Dec. 2 in JAMA Network Open.

Earlier this year, SNAP began a pilot program in which clients had the option of buying food via online grocery delivery services. The program was established by the 2014 Farm Bill; it may be considered for national implementation after the pilot ends in 2021.

Brandt’s inspiration for the study was a visit to an urban, East Coast neighborhood served only by small convenience stores. “I thought, ‘One of the grocery store chains must deliver here — wouldn’t that be a better option than trying to build a new brick-and-mortar store nearby or change the way local bodegas are run?’”

Brandt then learned the latest Farm Bill had just such a program.

For his study, Brandt identified food deserts in eight states by working with data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census Bureau. He also made use of a database of all stores that both sold and delivered groceries purchased online in the eight states (including department stores and big-box retailers) and also accepted orders from SNAP clients.

Brandt said the benefits of allowing SNAP families to buy healthy food online are far-reaching and wide-ranging. In the short term, they provide nutrients and nourishment that reduce obesity, boost energy, and help heal patients recovering from serious physical ailments; in the long term, they promote better eating habits and behaviors, which can lower the risk for serious illnesses.

When I see patients who have had a heart attack, the cornerstone of their recovery is making better lifestyle choices,” Brandt said. “Part of that has to do with the environment in which they live. It really influences the outcome.”

Joseph Ross, M.D., professor of medicine and public health at Yale, is senior author of the study. Co-authors are David Silvestri and Margaret Holland of Yale, and Jerold Mande of Tufts University.

The National Institutes of Health supported the research via a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Center for Advancing Translational Science.


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