The complexity of healthy eating: How does it relate to food deserts and food stamps?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics celebrates March as National Nutrition Month, and the 2018 theme is Go Further with Food. The theme emphasizes adopting healthier eating lifestyles, a topic we’ve discussed before, while also attempting to minimize food waste. As National Nutrition Month comes to an end, we hope to reflect on the intersection of healthy eating and healthy living with some hot topics at the moment: food deserts and food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as neighborhoods without “ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food” that meet general nutritional guidelines. Generally, food deserts lack access to fresh food retailers and residents have poorer health outcomes, such as a higher prevalence of obesity. With the abundance of research detailing the presence of food deserts in low-income communities, many have focused the conversation on eliminating these food deserts to better health outcomes. Experts discuss the importance of opening fresh food grocery retailers through incentives, and stalling the proliferation of fast food chains in low-income communities. Communities are even innovating to improve access to fresh food, such as building community gardens, developing online grocery delivery systems, and opening up farmers’ markets and mobile food vans.

However, recent evidence indicates that food deserts may not be as significant as previously thought. In fact, a recent study from NYU explored how increasing the number or supply of fresh food options in low-income communities does not necessarily reduce nutritional disparities. This is because there is still little demand for fresh food products. Researchers found that when the same grocery options were present in low-income and high-income populations, “nutritional inequality” only decreased by 9%. In summary, increasing fresh food options did not have much influence on shopping habits or improving nutritional purchases at the grocery store. Without changing shopping and eating habits, increasing fresh food accessibility may have little impact.

These results lead us to question current popular approaches to promote healthy eating for our nation’s children and families. In an attempt to evaluate and improve this landscape, the government’s 2019 fiscal budget proposes to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $214 billion in the next decade. SNAP, also known as food stamps, is a voucher program that allows low-income families to purchase food items at grocery stores. The program serves over 40 million people in the U.S., of which 70% are families with children. The SNAP program has long been regarded as a crucial pillar of the fight against poverty and hunger.

Along with this spending cut, the budget also plans to provide certain food stamp benefits through a “Harvest Box”. Proponents of the Box say it promotes nutritious eating by providing a pre-determined package of food. Many nutrition experts criticize the Harvest Box as being paternalistic, and point out the proposal’s irony of promoting healthy eating using exclusively non-perishable items.

What will be the best way to address healthy eating in the landscape of consumerism? There is no single answer--we need to do more research, and our nation should consider a multi-pronged approach that takes into account supply, demand, food culture, nutrition knowledge, poverty, and education.