For more than a decade, the discussion about food deserts has gone on, with politicians, nongovernment organizations and just about everyone else urging—and in some cases forcing—supermarkets to open in areas where, frankly, they can’t survive economically.
The concept is that if a supermarket opens, there will be an abundance of healthier and fresh food options that would help a community’s health profile. With few exceptions, that hasn’t worked.
In 2015, Minneapolis became the first city in the U.S. to require food-gas marts and convenience stores to stock certain types and quantities of healthy foods.
A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health evaluated the effectiveness of the policy and found stores have increased the availability of healthy foods offered over the past five years.
The researchers evaluated the healthy food selection based on availability, price, quality, product placement and other measures. They also interviewed customers about their purchasing choices and the foods they currently have at home.
Here is what they found:
- Retailers significantly increased the quantity of healthy food offerings over time in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
- Complete compliance with the 10-point ordinance was low: By 2017, only 10% of Minneapolis corner stores, gas stations, pharmacies and dollar stores were fully compliant, and 51% of participating retailers met at least eight of the 10 required standards.
- Few changes were found in customer purchases of healthy foods or the healthfulness of home food environments among frequent shoppers, and changes were not different between cities.
- As for why customers didn’t increase their purchases of healthy foods, study lead author and Professor Melissa Laska said the cause may be that many stores still aren’t in full compliance with the ordinance and offer a full range or stock of healthy foods.
She also said, “People don’t normally expect to find healthy food in convenience stores, so they wouldn’t make it a point to stop in there to buy those kinds of foods.”
So it’s not about accessibility—it’s about changing behaviors.