Opening Supermarkets in Food Deserts Improves Health of Residents, Even if They Don’t Buy Healthier Food

Opening Supermarkets in Food Deserts Improves Health of Residents, Even if They Don't Buy Healthier Food

Opening new supermarkets in low-income food deserts may improve the health of residents, no matter their shopping habits, according to a new RAND Corporation Study.

The study’s findings are based on research conducted in two low-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh: the Hill District, where a new supermarket opened in 2013, about 30 years after the last local supermarket closed, and Homewood, an economically and demographically similar neighborhood without a full-service supermarket.

Researchers found that one year after the Hill District’s new supermarket opened, despite the fact that residents didn’t necessarily report buying healthier foods, 12 percent fewer residents reported facing food insecurity as compared to Homewood, and 10 percent fewer new cases of high cholesterol, 7 percent fewer new cases of arthritis, and 3.6 percent fewer new cases of diabetes were reported. In addition, participation in SNAP (previously known as food stamps) dropped by 12 percent in the Hill District.

“Our findings suggest that locating a new supermarket in a low-income neighborhood may trigger health and economic improvements beyond just having access to healthier and more-plentiful food offerings,” says Andrea Richardson, the study’s lead author.

Advocates of opening full-service supermarkets in food deserts specifically note that these resources “may foster community economic development,” according to a news release. The Hill District’s supermarket employs about 40 people, three-quarters of whom live in the neighborhood, reports TribLive.

“While our findings suggest that supporting the opening of supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods may have widespread benefits, more work needs to be done to understand how the changes take place,” said Richardson.

Last year, researchers in Michigan found that there was a correlation between living in food deserts and developing heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 23.5 to 29 million Americans live in food deserts. The USDA defines a food desert as an area where at least 500 people live more than a mile from a supermarket.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco