Low-income America is rife with food deserts, where supermarkets are scarce and good food so rare that people have little choice but to shop in corner stores, whose processed and highly caloric foods contribute to obesity.
Build a decent supermarket with good, fresh produce, social scientists have said, and residents will flock to the oasis, their neighborhood a desert no more and their health much improved.
That kind of thinking inspired the creation of a Fresh Grocer store in North Philadelphia, opened to great fanfare–including an appearance by Michelle Obama–on North Broad Street near Temple University in 2009.
Has health in the neighborhood improved?
A landmark study released this month–the first of its kind in U.S. history–says: not really.
Though the market has made people more aware of the availability of fruits and vegetables, shoppers haven’t been eating any more produce, and their body-mass index (a combination of height and weight) hasn’t declined, according to the study, published in the journal Health Affairs.
Before anyone blames North Philadelphians for failing to get healthier, experts say the mere presence of a 46,000-square-foot supermarket cannot alter human behavior.
“You shouldn’t expect a new store to change consumption,” said Stephen A. Matthews, a Pennsylvania State University sociologist and one of three authors of the study. “It’s naive to think that intervening at one level will be a magic bullet. Obesity is so complex.”
The $15 million Fresh Grocer was developed by, among other entities, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative, a public-private partnership established to increase the number of supermarkets in underserved communities across the state.
Aside from what people eat, the study teased out an interesting fact about where people shop.
Of the more than 300 people surveyed who lived within a mile or so of the Fresh Grocer, 83 had adopted it as their main store within six months of its opening. Most people continued to shop elsewhere–as many as 40 other stores, according to Matthews.
Some shopped as far away as the Reading Terminal Market in Center City, which has long been a favorite of low-income shoppers because of easy transit access, antihunger experts say.
Matthews said people are still loyal to their old stores. And for many, Fresh Grocer–though less pricey than the corner stores–still is more expensive than other surrounding venues, local food experts say.