Making the Case

Why Healthy Food Access Matters

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 29.7 million people live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket. These communities lack adequate access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food choices. The same communities without supermarkets and grocery stores often feature fast food, liquor, and convenience stores selling unhealthy, high-fat, high-sugar foods. Many of the people living in these underserved communities also lack reliable transportation. Accessing healthy food can mean multiple bus rides while carting groceries and children or scrambling to find someone with a car who is willing to drive to the nearest market. The absence of healthy food retailers is a double whammy for poor communities because these areas greatly need the jobs and economic activity that grocery stores and healthy food retail can provide.

The good news is, healthy food access projects have been proven to revitalize local economies, expand access to healthy food, and improve health across the United States.

Who Faces Limited Food Access?

Accessing healthy food is a challenge for many Americans—particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas. 

 

  • Low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer supermarkets and 1.3 times as many convenience stores as middle-income zip codes. Predominantly black zip codes have about half as many supermarkets as predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a third as many.
  • Low-income neighborhoods have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest neighborhoods, according to an assessment of 685 urban and rural census tracts in three states. The same study found four times as many supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods as predominantly black ones.
  • Nearly one-third of the U.S. population is transportation disadvantaged, meaning they cannot easily access a grocery store, work, or other basic personal and family needs. This is particularly a challenge for people of color and low-income individuals.

 

Improving Food Access, Creating Economic Opportunities, and Improving Health

To address these issues, healthy food advocates have worked to improve access in both rural and urban communities. Increasing access creates good neighborhood jobs and can be a powerful force of revitalization for disinvested communities. Over the past 20 years—with more than 300 studies completed—it has become clear that people who live in neighborhoods with better access to healthy food also tend to have better nutrition and better health. To learn more, check out the following reports:

 

Healthy Food Access: Economic Impacts

Healthy food retail improves the economic health and well-being of communities and can help revitalize struggling business districts. In addition to providing jobs, healthy food retail also increases or stabilizes home values in nearby neighborhoods, generates local tax revenues, provides workforce training and development, and promotes additional spending in the local economy.  


Creates and Retains Jobs

  • A large, full-service supermarket employs 150 to 200 full- and part-time employees and has weekly sales of $200,000 to $300,000.
  • From 2004 to 2010, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) approved funding for 88 fresh food retail projects, resulting in more than 5,000 jobs and improving access to healthy food for more than 400,000 residents.
  • A study of six rural stores funded by the Pennsylvania FFFI found that, five stores have increased employment in their communities, and the sixth is run as a co-op. One store doubled its number of employees, from 48 to 100 workers.

 

Increases Property Values

  • A study of the impacts of supermarkets in Philadelphia indicates that the opening of a supermarket leads to increased housing values in the nearby community. In one Philadelphia neighborhood, housing values saw an immediate boost, ranging from 4 to 7 percent after the opening of a supermarket.

 

Spurs Community Development

  • Many full-service grocery stores engage in community development through local giving programs.  In Portland, Oregon, the local New Seasons Market, which has created more than 2,300 local jobs since 2000 citywide, also donated over 1,040 tons of food to Oregon food banks, contributed 10 percent of after-tax profits back to local nonprofits, and volunteered over 360 hours of local community service.

 

Promotes Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs

  • Grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers' markets that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits bring federal dollars into communities, and this, in turn, produces economic benefits for stores, and spur broader economic stimulus across states, regions, and the nation. Specifically, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity.

Healthy Food Access: Health Impacts

During the past several decades, obesity rates have increased markedly, and in 2011, one-third of U.S. adults were obese. The causes of obesity are complex and numerous, occurring at social, economic, environmental, and individual levels. However, improving healthy food access has been shown to be an effective measure in improving healthy eating habits and lowering the risk for diet-related diseases.  

 

Healthier Eating

  • Adults with no supermarkets within a mile of their homes are 25 to 46 percent less likely to have a healthy diet than those with the most supermarkets near their homes.
  • Residents are more likely to meet dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables when they live in a census tract with a supermarket. For African Americans, produce consumption increases by 32 percent.

 

Lower Risk for Diet-related Diseases

  • Neighborhood access to healthy food and safe places for physical activity matters for children’s weight. Children living in neighborhoods with healthy food and safe play spaces are 56 percent less likely to be obese than children in neighborhoods without these features.
  • Adults living in neighborhoods with supermarkets and grocery stores have lower obesity rates (21 percent) as compared to those living in neighborhoods with no supermarkets (32 to 40 percent). In Los Angeles, a study found a correlation between the distance traveled to a grocery store and body mass index (BMI)—longer distances are associated with higher BMI.