Adding Healthy Options to Food Deserts Doesn't Make People Buy Those Healthy Options

Adding Healthy Options to Food Deserts Doesn't Make People Buy Those Healthy Options
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

It seems intuitive: If everyone in our country had access to fresh fruits and vegetables, everyone would eat better, right? According to a new study from Drexel University, simply making nutritious produce more available and accessible in neighborhoods with high rates of obesity might not not be so helpful.

To investigate this issue, researchers drastically overhauled corner stores in East Los Angeles, stocking them with more nutritious, fresh produce. Unfortunately, the store makeovers did not inspire nearby residents to consume more fruits and vegetables. 

The experiment: Over the course of two years, researchers seriously upgraded shelving units and display cases, added fresh produce and trained store owners on handling and stocking produce in eight corner stores in East Los Angeles, a Mexican-American region where unhealthy food is more readily available than fresh produce. In East LA, nearly 77% of residents are overweight or obese. 

But better displays didn't make healthy eating more appealing. People surveyed continued to spend a little under $50 per week on produce, which was around 17% to 18% of their food budget. 

Even more, the number of fruit and vegetable servings they consumed per day did not significantly change. Study participants consumed around 4.4 to 4.8 servings of fruits and veggies, whether their grocers were refurbished or not. Considering the government's recommended daily intake for fruits and veggies is five to nine servings a day, these stats aren't horrible, but aren't stellar, either.   

"Given the financial and technical support that we were able to provide to stores, it is quite disheartening that we saw no real changes in food purchasing or diet at the community level,"  lead study author Alex Ortega, PhD, professor in Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health told Drexel Now

What will it take to boost veggie intake in unhealthy communities? Ortega told Drexel Now that corner store overhauls might be more effective if they're part of broader, community-wide health initiatives. Think policy changes, more education on nutrition, improvements in food marketing and more.