Eliminating ‘food deserts’ not best strategy for reducing diet quality disparities

Efforts to improve diet quality in the U.S. and decrease disparities should not be focused on eliminating “food deserts”— areas with mostly low-income residents that lack access to a supermarket or large grocery store — according to researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School (HMS). Instead, they write, policymakers should prioritize education initiatives, changes in food assistance programs, and taxing unhealthy food.

Jason Block, assistant professor of population medicine at HMS, and S V Subramanian, professor of population health and geography at Harvard Chan, outlined their position in an article published online in PLOS Medicine on December 8, 2015.

Most Americans fail to meet dietary recommendations, and those in marginalized racial and socioeconomic groups tend to fare the worst. Efforts by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity and the World Health Organization have made eliminating food deserts a priority, but the authors argued that there is little evidence to suggest that increasing access to food improves dietary quality and population health.

“Rather than assuming that ‘if we build it, they will come’ and eat healthfully,” they asked, “why not focus solely on policies that have more face validity, especially those that directly target economic and racial/ethnic disparities in diet quality?”

Read PLOS article: Moving Beyond “Food Deserts”: Reorienting United States Policies to Reduce Disparities in Diet Quality