It Takes More Than a Supermarket to Fix a Food Desert

Research from NYU shows that the opening of a grocery store in the Bronx did nothing to change residents' eating habits.

Produce department at Associated Supermarket in Morrisania, New York. (Photo: Flickr)

Mar 3, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeed, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

It seems like common sense: If an area, especially a dense urban area, is suffering because of lack of nutritious food, why not build a government-supported, fully stocked supermarket there? Yet a study from NYU Langone Medical Center released last Thursday surveyed one such project and came back with depressing results. In studying a low-income New York community with a new supermarket compared to a nearby neighborhood with no new store, the researchers found no appreciable difference between the two groups: No improvement in the quality of food available at home, no children suddenly eating their vegetables, no one shunning fast food. Which would seem to refute the common preconceived notion that the way to fix food deserts is to simply make food available. So why doesn’t it work?

Associated supermarket in Morrisania, New York.
(Photo: Flickr)

Morrisania, a small, low-income neighborhood in the South Bronx, is one of the poorest in New York City and a designated food desert. Diets in areas like Morrisania consist mostly of fast and processed foods, and rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, among plenty of other ailments, are far higher than in areas not classified as such. It’s one of the most intractable public health issues in the country, and Morrisania, despite its location only a few miles from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, is a textbook case. The neighborhood tests higher in rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes—not to mention depression, infant mortality, mental illness, HIV, and other health problems—than the average for the wider Bronx and much higher than New York City as a whole, according to studies from the Department of Health.

To try to fix the problem, the city government gave local supermarket chain Associated Foods financial incentives of about $449,000 back in 2010 to build an Associated Supermarket in Morrisania. The market, which cost about $1.1 million to build, is enormous, a full 17,000 square feet chock-full of the kind of healthy fruits and vegetables (and other foods) the neighborhood had been lacking before it opened in 2011. It currently has only a single review on Yelp, though the reviewer apparently loved the market’s deli sandwiches.

NYU’s study, conducted by researcher Brian D. Elbel, surveyed more than 2,000 caregivers of neighborhood children between the ages of three and 10 three times: before the supermarket opened, shortly after it opened, and a year after it opened. Elbel also surveyed caregivers in Highbridge, a nearby neighborhood with no supermarket. The study found that “The introduction of a government-subsidized supermarket did not result in significant changes in household food availability or children's dietary intake,” according to a press release.

“I'm not surprised that one supermarket didn't make a difference; it's such a vast problem, it's kinda like a Band-Aid on a heart attack,” said Michelle Friedman, communications director at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “We really believe that you have to approach the community at large to really alleviate this problem in any meaningful way.” For NYCCAH, food deserts are about far more than a lack of grocery stores—they’re immensely complex policy problems. The group sees food deserts in Morrisania and elsewhere as a symptom of numerous other socioeconomic problems: a low minimum wage, education issues, an inability to prepare more time-consuming meals from fresh ingredients, a higher cost of raw foods compared with prepared foods, a lack of decent jobs, and geographical location, to name a few concerns, in addition to the simple problem of there being no place to buy a head of lettuce in the neighborhood. NYCCAH is still gathering data to further refine its diagnosis of the problem.

Rather than giving huge tax breaks and other incentives to grocery chains, groups like NYCCAH want to address a systemic issue with solutions that broadly affect communities like Morrisania. The group’s efforts include advocating for universal free breakfasts for all New York City public school kids, which Friedman hopes will impart the right lessons early, and an increased minimum wage. “If you look at minimum wage and you look at what people are earning—to us at the coalition, you shouldn't be working full-time for minimum wage and still not be able to afford to feed your family, which is how it is,” says Friedman.

Far from being upset that the study seems to be saying government intervention in food deserts isn’t working, Friedman found the study perfectly in line with what organizations like NYCCAH have been saying all along. “I think the study is a great catalyst and demonstrates why we really need to holistically approach this issue,” she says. “Maybe the study will finally get this administration to do some things, because obviously one supermarket isn't making a difference, and we owe it to our kids to change the way things are.”