‘Food Deserts’ Identified By New Research Approach
February 15, 2013

‘Food Deserts’ Identified By New Research Approach

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Deserts are typically characterized as barren, arid, unforgiving locales that are detrimental to the sustenance of life. Food deserts fit this mold. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a food desert is an area that lacks access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk and other foods necessary for the maintenance of a healthy diet.

The CDC, along with a new study out of the University of Cincinnati (UC), cites a 2009 review of five high income countries in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease (PCD) in stating food deserts do, in fact, exist in the United States. Unfortunately, an accurate representation of how many U.S. citizens might be affected by living in food deserts has been inconclusive until this most recent study. In fact, the definition of what constitutes a food desert is, as yet, undefined.

Previous studies were conducted and their findings suggested food deserts may negatively affect the health outcomes for residents in those areas. Some researchers believe even with the introduction of healther food options, residents will continue to consume unhealthy food choices based mainly on personal preferences. Other researchers have wanted to explore the link between access to affordable nutritious foods and the intake of those foods. This is where the UC study has embarked in a new direction in the examination of the availability of healthy foods specifically for urban populations. Their study focused on the commuting patterns of residents in these nutritiously blighted areas. Their results, which may provide a new approach to identifying food deserts, are currently published online and will appear in the May journal of Health and Place. Their findings, it is anticipated, will help to redefine food deserts based not on residential proximity alone, taking into account where an individual might travel or commute through their day.

The UC study, led by Michael Widener, assistant professor of geography, calculated a new way to pinpoint food deserts. The key to their findings was taking into account the commuting patterns of residents who were previously assumed to be suffering the effects of living in a food desert. The study, conducted in the greater Cincinnati area, culled data from The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) to find residents in certain transportation analysis zones often had improved access to supermarkets as a result of their daily commute. Undertaking this analysis was important in broadening the understanding of food deserts, which previously only factored in residential demographic data.

Also highlighted in the study was the American Community Survey, which found 71 percent of workers over age 16 were, in the Cincinnati area, lone commuters to work. Not observed in this study was if these residents took advantage of their daily proximity to supermarkets with healthier options by purchasing the fruits and vegetables that are not available to them near their own homes.

Socio-economics have often factored highly in helping to determine the location of food deserts. Typically, they are associated with low-income neighborhoods. These low-income neighborhoods have been linked to a wide range of health problems, not the least of which were increased risk of developing diabetes or suffering a stroke. Widener and colleagues report, however, previous research has failed to produce a consistent link between access to healthy food and healthier residents.

The authors of this study believe their findings could be instrumental in the creation of new innovative intervention strategies designed to encourage residents who commute out of a food desert on a daily basis to incorporate after work trips to supermarkets to obtain healthier food options.

“Given the daily movements of an urban population, this novel measure can provide new information to public and transportation policy makers seeking to understand the role spatial access to healthy food plays in population health,” states the article.

While this report, based on 2005 OKI data for the Cincinnati-proper region, focused on commuters who travel by private automobile, future research is already underway in factoring those members of the population who rely upon public transportation for their daily commutes.

It is important to note, while commuter data relied upon 2005 figures, the team used 2012 data in their examination of locations for both national and regional grocery stores and supermarkets. This data was used in comparison of the locations of Cincinnati neighborhoods. In all, the study covered 359 transportation analysis zones in Cincinnati and the approximately 158,000 automobile commuters associated with those zones.

Assisting Widener with the study were Steven Farber, Tijs Neutens and Mark W. Horner. Farber is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah. Neutens is a post-doctoral researcher for the Department of Geography at Ghent University. Horner is an associate professor of geography at Florida State University.