Is Kansas City’s “Food Desert” a Mirage?
A “food desert” is an urban area devoid of grocery stores—thought to affect the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by the urban poor. Twice in the past year we’ve discussed Kansas City’s effort to address an east side food desert by rebuilding a closed grocery store on Linwood Blvd. We argued first that having city government prop up an already-failed business venture is a bad idea. Then we pointed out that the cost of this misadventure had jumped considerably from $11 to $15 million. Now we learn that the problem that this expensive government program is meant to address may not even exist.
The US Department of Agriculture just released an article based on research that concluded that while earlier studies suggested that grocery store location mattered,
More recent studies—using new data with rich detail about food shopping behavior or better methods for understanding the underlying relationships between store access and diet—show that the effect of food store access on dietary quality may be limited.
The study found that regardless of income, people don’t necessarily shop for groceries at the stores closest to them. The study also indicated that food prices affect choices, which shouldn’t be surprising. The part that matters most for Kansas City is the section titled “Building New Supermarkets Is Not Enough.” In one study, researchers compared eating habits before and after a new supermarket opened; concluding,
residents who regularly used the new store had similar diets as residents who did not. The study also found that fruit and vegetable consumption decreased slightly in both neighborhoods.
A similar study of two neighborhoods in Philadelphia—one where a new supermarket opened in 2009 and a similar neighborhood without a new store—was published in 2014 by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Penn State University. Residents’ perceptions of food accessibility in the neighborhood with the new store improved relative to the control neighborhood, but consumption of fruits and vegetables did not improve.
The article concludes that “improving access to healthy foods” won’t have much impact. It suggests that more important factors might be product cost and available income for food. In those regards Kansas City is not doing well—we are a high tax city overall; often charging a higher tax rate in poorer neighborhoods. Kansas City’s profligate spending—despite the best intentions—is hurting its most vulnerable residents.