According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 23.5 million Americans reside in food deserts. While the issue has received copious news coverage and widespread recognition in recent years, researchers and policymakers alike have yet to develop an adequate solution. Beyond the obvious issues posed by such a problem, food deserts are incontrovertible evidence of inequality in the richest country in the world. To remediate this issue in a lasting way, solutions must be multifaceted and adequately account for the experiences of members of these communities. Beyond increased funding, public private partnerships and co-op business models may provide just this sort of solution.
I. The Issue
By definition, a food desert is a geographical area in which residents live below the poverty line and more than one mile away from a supermarket. The residents of such areas typically lack meaningful access to personal transportation. As a result, they must resort to public transportation to reach the grocery store. According to residents of a notorious food desert in southern Memphis, TN, it can often take upwards of an hour to reach the supermarket even if buses are running on time. Yet, like other Americans, residents of these areas also have children, often multiple jobs, and other time commitments that make long trips to the supermarket impractical. Consequently, this inadequate access creates more than mere inconvenience for the residents of food deserts. Without proper access to supermarkets, those in food deserts often must resort to convenience stores for groceries and fast-food restaurants for prepared meals. While the health risks of fast-food consumption are well known and frequently discussed, the risks of diets supported by convenience store groceries are less established. Yet, such stores often carry large amounts of candy, soda, and unhealthy snacks; foods that are generally high in unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and high fructose corn syrup. As a result, communities limited to these food options typically have higher rates of obesity and type II diabetes. As instances of these diseases continue to rise in low-income communities, so too do the healthcare costs associated with treating them, rendering food deserts a legitimate source of public health crisis. Nonetheless, according to some researchers, inadequate access to healthier foods is only one minor factor in the overall issue of food insecurity.
II. Counter Arguments
In 2019, John-Pierre Dubé along with other researchers published a report entitled, Food Deserts and the Causes of Nutritional Inequality. In this study, Dubé and his co-authors analyzed data regarding the healthfulness of the groceries that shoppers of different income levels purchased. As a preliminary matter, the study found that wealthier individuals and households tended to purchase healthier foods when compared to poorer households. Against this backdrop, the study went on to analyze 1000 situations in which a supermarket entered an area formerly categorized as a food desert. In these areas, the study sought to ascertain whether the entrance of a supermarket would lead consumers to purchase healthier grocery options. These healthier options included items such as fresh produce and meats that convenience stores and bodegas typically lack. Shockingly, the study found that the purchasing habits of residents were largely unaffected by the change. This prompted the researchers to conclude that food deserts or inadequate access only accounted for 4% of consumer purchasing preferences. The teleological end of such an assertion is to suggest that the true source of this health crisis lies in the eating habits of the residents of food deserts. If this is truly the case, then how should policymakers seek to resolve this issue?
A. Access to Transportation
According to the Dubé study, it is the individual household that is responsible for unhealthy consumption habits, not the environment that constrains its choices. As such, the study concludes that political actors that truly wish to curtail obesity and promote healthy eating should implement subsidies for fresh produce while taxing sugar. Yet, while this study would seem to suggest that food deserts aren’t the “real problem”, the experiences of those living food deserts is, in fact, much different. In a US News article explaining the findings of the study, the coauthors state that “local neighborhood conditions don’t matter much, since we regularly venture outside our neighborhoods. We calculate that the average American travels 5.2 miles to shop. Low-income households aren’t that different: They travel 4.8 miles.”
While it may seem that Dubé’s distance argument, undercuts the food desert “hypothesis”, it is important to remember that this argument fails to account for how members of low-income households travel those distances. Certainly, traveling 5.2 miles to the supermarket is no obstacle when one has access to a car, but to travel even 4.8 miles without such access can take exponentially longer. When lower income households must rely on public transportation systems that regularly experience delays, traveling even a relatively short distance outside of the local neighborhood becomes an arduous task. The issue becomes even more complex for households with multiple small children who may require supervision in the form of a babysitter during this time. All these plausible scenarios suggest that the issue is more complex than the mere distance from one’s home to a supermarket. Consequently, solutions that focus myopically on this facet of the problem miss the economic realities that underpin food injustice across the country.
Beyond access to reliable transportation, residents of food deserts often have unequal access to another important resource that impacts food injustice: time. Relative to their middle- and upper-class counterparts, low-income communities such as those in food deserts are more likely to work two or more jobs. Moreover, low-income households such as those in food deserts typically have more children than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. While an explanation for such disparities is better suited for another discussion, suffice it to say that these factors add an additional constraint on time for residents of food deserts.
With less time between jobs or simply between work and childcare, residents of these areas are less likely to prepare a meal at home. When time is a limited resource, it is only logical that these groups will defer to quick food options in their local communities, typically fast-food. This unfortunate circumstance is exacerbated by the fact that fast-food can often be cheaper (requiring fewer resources) as compared to buying healthy groceries and cooking at home. This is especially true when one accounts for the time required to complete both tasks. As such, time constraints are another factor that contribute to food insecurity in the United States.
C. Eating Habits
Finally, a discussion of food insecurity and food deserts in the United States would not be complete without a mention of individual eating habits. According to the Dubé study, food insecurity may be a matter of personal unhealthy choices that cannot be dramatically corrected with increased access to supermarkets alone. These shocking insights seem to undermine the traditional solution to food insecurity/food deserts which is simply increased access. Yet at least facially, these assertions seem to ignore the psychological factors that contribute to food purchasing habits.
As researchers have proven, human beings tend to develop lifelong food consumption habits at an early age. Against this backdrop, it is much less surprising to see that the introduction of a supermarket into a community that was formerly a food desert did not immediately increase the healthfulness of purchasing habits. Presumably, the individuals purchasing food for a household are adults and/or parents whose eating habits are colored by years of reliance on fast-food and convenience store groceries. According to Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies choice, “[c]hoice is just as much about who [Americans] are as it is about what the product is.” Moreover, Nobel prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky broadly suggest via the field of behavioral economics that individuals occasionally, if not frequently, make decisions other than those considered economically “rational.”
Finally, in a piece entitled, The Mechanics of Choice, in the Association for Psychological Science, Eric Wargo discusses how other cognitive biases and heuristics can adversely impact decision making. For example, the availability heuristic is “a cognitive bias in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).” While the availability heuristic has a plethora of applications throughout the field of psychology, it also easily maps onto food insecurity in the United States. As residents of food deserts are surrounded by fast-food restaurants and other sources of unhealthy foods, it stands to reason that they will be predisposed to opt for these familiar and convenient options, even after a supermarket may enter the community. Ultimately, policy solutions to food insecurity must account for these realities.
IV. Policy solutions
As this discussion and the referenced studies suggest, solving food insecurity in the United States is much more complex than it may seem. For example, in 2010, then First Lady Michele Obama set an ambitious goal to eradicate food deserts in the United Stated by 2017 via the Healthy Foods Financing Initiative. Now, 5 years past the target date, the objective remains yet incomplete, leaving one to question what caused this plan to fail. One theory is that merely providing increased funding to these communities was not enough to combat the underlying structural issue which is poverty. With that said, future policy initiatives clearly must go beyond increased funding. Perhaps the best way to enact change on a macro level is to focus on examples of success on the micro level and determine if such solutions are scalable.
Across the U.S., various individual communities have found success in combating food insecurity. For example, ShopRite is a retailer’s cooperative that profitably operates 7 supermarkets in former food deserts. The store uses a public-private partnership (PPP) model to make a positive impact on the greater Philadelphia community. Beyond food sales, the store also provides an in-store nutritionist to help consumers make healthier decisions in cost effective ways. Finally, the store provides other community services like health services for the uninsured and banking services. According to Jeff Brown, the CEO of ShopRite, the stores sell just as much healthy produce in former food deserts as they do in wealthier, suburban stores, suggesting that residents’ habits may in fact be changing. In the future, other stores across the U.S. may be able to use incentive programs like PPPs or other government subsidies to meet the needs of residents while also operating profitably. Overall, this business model seems to adequately address some of the concerns of the aforementioned Dubé study. ShopRite has gone beyond just increasing supermarket access in food deserts by actively working to cater to the community, promote healthy habits, and combat food insecurity.
In conclusion, food insecurity in the United States is a complex issue that encompasses more than mere geographical distance from a supermarket. Factors such as eating habits, access to transportation, and other resource constraints make tackling food insecurity a challenge. From a policy perspective, legislators must go beyond providing increased funding to these areas but should instead focus on incentivizing co-op and public private partnership models to businesses. These incentives should also promote the administration of additional services like in-store nutritionists to tackle the psychological aspect of the problem. In the future the promotion of these models may be the long-awaited solution to national food insecurity.
About the Author: Brandon Richards is currently a 2nd year student in the 3-year JD/MBA program at Cornell University. Brandon graduated from Villanova University in 2020 with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration in both Economics and Real Estate. After graduation in 2023, Brandon plans to leverage this strong foundation in business and law as a corporate associate attorney in the mergers and acquisitions space. He currently serves as an associate on the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy.
Suggested Citation: Brandon Richards, West Virginia v. EPA: Will the Supreme Court Defer to Chevron?, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (April 12, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/food-deserts-and-food-insecurity/.