It’s (not) food access, stupid

New grocery stores like Walmart may not help America eat better.

How can we change the way America eats? If there is one thing most people agree on, it’s that we need to make healthy food more accessible and affordable to low-income families.

Or do we? A new survey from Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program, challenges a piece of the conventional wisdom. The poll of 1,500 families reveals that most low-income families are satisfied with the availability of good food. Seventy-seven percent of urban families were satisfied with their options versus 69 percent of rural families. The greater obstacles to healthy meals are planning skills, time and, yes, price.

According to the survey:

  • Families with a stay-at-home mom or an unemployed parent are far more likely to prepare healthy from-scratch meals. An at-home parent makes dinner from scratch 4.4 times per week versus 3.6 for families where the adult(s) are employed full-time. Homemakers, the unemployed and disabled were more likely to agree that that cooking healthy meals was a realistic goal than those that worked full time.
  • Families that regularly budget and plan for meals before shopping, using a written grocery list, for example, are the same families who eat healthy, balanced or made from-scratch dinners most days of the week. Families that always or often plan are significantly more likely to provide healthy meals five or more times a week. However, overall 35 percent and 55 percent of survey respondents don’t regularly use written grocery lists or plan meals before going to the store, respectively.
  • Price is a factor. One in four families report choosing less healthy foods often or always because of price. But, the report smartly notes that this can be overcome by educating families about the benefits of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, which cost a fraction of fresh ones and don’t rot in the crisper drawer. While 81 percent of families said that fresh produce was extremely healthy, just 32 percent of parents rated frozen fruits and vegetables as extremely healthy and only 12 percent said that canned ones offered great nutritional benefits.

The study was funded by ConAgra, which has led some to be suspicious of the results. But the data reflect what my husband, Brent Cunningham, and I saw while reporting for six months in Huntington, West Virginia. Among the families we followed, the very poorest was the one most likely to cook healthy meals at home. But it required intense planning and basic cooking skills. The families least likely to eat well were the ones who, frankly, didn’t have to.  They had enough money to swing by Burger King for dinner on the way home instead of cooking family meals and eating leftovers. (See my recent post on the Atlantic: Fast Food’s Dirty Little Secret.) They shopped impulsively, instead of methodically, at the grocery store, which meant their carts were filled with frozen pizzas, chips and snacks.

It’s fashionable to blame a lack of access to good food for America’s lousy eating habits. It may be easier to plunk down a new Walmart in the inner city. (And the schemes also may help cash-starved politicians generate corporate campaign contributions.) But the Cooking Matters survey is more evidence that helping families to eat better is a lot more complicated.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

    Well put, Jane. However, just because a person or family has access to healthy, locally produced foods doesn’t always mean they’ll choose it. To my great dismay, yesterday I witnessed a fellow farmer who attends several of the premier farmers markets in the region grocery shopping. Given their access to incredibly healthy foods, their cart was loaded with ultra-processed foods full of HFCS and transfats. You can lead a horse to water…..

  2. Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:34 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this. It’s important to call out that healthy family meals, cooked at home can be affordable. The study shows that low-income families cooking healthy meals is not “theoretical” — they are actually cooking at home and, perhaps more importantly, value healthy eating. But I disagree that this makes it a “more complicated” problem. Improving healthy food access is not exactly easy, despite the Wal-mart promise, and will not actually make a difference unless those healthy foods are actually purchased and cooked by families.

    I think we have to focus resources on improving skills of parents and young adults at all income levels (skills of cooking, planning, shopping) so that meals at home can be the norm, almost (!) as easy as fast food and way more healthy and satisfying.

  3. Posted February 1, 2012 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

    I’m not sure I entirely buy the concept of a food desert.

    However, I’m surprised that the study didn’t look at transportation as a barrier to healthy eating. If you live in a place where public transportation is so-so or nonexistent, and you don’t have a car, transportation would have to be a barrier at times.

    If I didn’t have a car and it was 10 degrees out with a couple feet of snow on the ground…I would think that would affect one’s desire/ability to shop at the food outlets with the healthiest choices.

  4. Julia
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Permalink

    Having read the study, I completely disagree with your conclusions. According to the findings, “at least 60% of families are satisfied with their grocery stores when it comes to providing quality, variety and stocked healthy groceries.” Which means that 40% are not. Although technically 60% can be called “most,” it seems less than ideal. Additionally, “1 in 4 families report skipping healthy purchases often or always due to price.” In my opinion this does not indicate good access.I agree that education could make a vast difference in the health of some of these families, but if there is not enough money or time to create healthy well-balanced meals there is little that will chnage. Hunger is a poverty issue. Families that are under financial stress will continue to struggle with the reality of putting nutritious food on their tables with any kind of regularity. Having a grocery store right next door isn’t going to solve the problem.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post column, Smarter Food.
      

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