In the last two events held by The Food Industry Center, both speakers addressed the issue of food access, bringing into focus a topic that went largely ignored for many years in economic research. Late last year, as part of the Food Industry Leaders in the Classroom event, Mike Erlandson talked about SUPERVALU's collaboration with the White House to open more Save-a-Lot stores (small grocery stores with limited product variety) with the intent of providing healthy food to people in food deserts. In last Friday's 2012 Houck Lecture, Dr. Laurian Unnevehr spoke about the impact food access has on obesity.
There is surprisingly little research on how food access (both too much access to unhealthy foods known as 'food swamps' or too little access to healthy foods known as 'food deserts') affects public health. In the October 2010 issue of Choices Magazine, Michele Ver Ploeg gives a brief overview of the limited research on food access and says that most studies have found better access to supermarkets is associated with healthier diets and reduced risk of obesity. Meanwhile, Dr. Unnevehr talked about the research literature that associates increased access to fast foods with increased obesity. Research has shown that having fast food close to schools increases childhood obesity and fast food proximity increased weight gain in pregnant women.
Dr. Unnevehr also talked about how food access has become part of federal policy. There have been modest investments at the federal level, such as the Department of Treasury has given awards under its New Markets Tax Credit Program to encourage development in low income communities. Retailers such as SUPERVALU and Walmart have made commitments to Michelle Obama to open new stores in food deserts. Even the 2008 Farm Bill mandated the USDA's Economic Research Service study the access issue. This resulted in the creation of the Food Desert Locator, an interactive map that shows where food deserts are located. They found only 4.1% of the population lives in low-income neighborhoods situated more than a mile from a supermarket.
These new programs present opportunities for further research. Dr. Unnevehr presented important research questions such as how does food access shape purchases? It is also important that the nature of the problem is better defined as studies so far have focused on access from home, but fail to account for access gained from routine daily travel. Without a better understanding of the problem, we cannot know the consequences of inadequate food access.