If you’ve been paying attention to the media lately, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about food deserts. For those of you who haven’t heard, food deserts are areas of high poverty where access to affordable, healthy food — like fresh produce — is almost impossible, especially without a car. Food deserts have been credited with a decline in overall health in impoverished areas, as well as with a rise in obesity.
Fortunately, awareness is being raised for this important issue. Groups like the Food Empowerment Project are working to help people understand that these food deserts are a serious problem and raise funds to get produce stores and fresh markets in areas where there aren’t any.
Stephen Matthews, professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology, and demography at Penn State University says: “The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come.” The idea here is that, if there is an increase in the supply of fresh food, there will be an increase in demand.
Sounds like simple economics, right? Wrong. A new study has found that simple availability of fresh food is not enough to increase demand for said food. Matthews and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine did a recent poll in a Philadelphia neighborhood in which a new supermarket — complete with a produce aisle — had opened six months ago. The results they found were surprising in that there was almost no change in residents’ shopping habits at all. Only 26 percent said that the new store was their go-to market, with a slightly higher percentage of people who lived extremely close to the store.
The bottom line is that, even if fresh produce is available, people aren’t going to go out of their comfort zones to buy or consume it.
So what can we do to help increase consumption of these healthy foods? Here are a few ideas.
We all know that huge changes aren’t made overnight. Even those of us who have plenty of access to fresh fruits and veggies sometimes find ourselves reaching for a bag of potato chips rather than an apple. Encourage baby steps for people who have formed their habits around the food that has typically been available to them. Eat one apple a day, or replace one snack with some carrot sticks or celery. Encouraging this kind of behavior can help turn small steps into lifestyle changes.
Marketing can go a long way toward making fresh food look desirable. If people see eating healthy food as a chore, they’ll never want to do it. We need marketing programs that advertise the baby steps people can take to replace a few things with fresh produce. Make fresh food look appetizing and cool. These are just a few of the ways marketing programs can make a difference in the midst of a new store opening.
Some of the resistance to produce might just be a lack of knowledge of what to do with it. Sure, you can eat it fresh and raw, but it’s good to incorporate it into meals, too. By offering free, easy recipes along with the produce, people will learn to cook with it and will keep coming back for more. Recipe cards next to the produce in the aisle are simple ways to spread free recipes.
Along with free recipes, offering samples of those recipes already prepared as people shop is one of the oldest tricks in the book for getting people to buy things in the grocery store. Featuring certain produce items can give people a taste of fresh food and entice them to buy more.
Photo Credit: Pamela Stocks