Moving America Forward

A New Study Yields Surprising Results About Low-Income People and Food Deserts

March 26, 2014
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A New Study Yields Surprising Results About Low-Income People and Food Deserts
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
SNAP recipients travel far from their neighborhoods to find groceries.

Whether it’s a traveling bus full of vegetables or convenience stores stocked with farmer’s market produce, people across this country are coming up with innovative ways to solve the problems caused by food deserts. And these creative programs are having a big impact in some neighborhoods.

More low-income people tend to live in food deserts and have a hard time accessing transportation to grocery stores and farmers markets — exacerbating the problems of obesity-related illness among the poor. Or so the theory goes.

Jerry Shannon wondered if this was true, so during his doctoral program in geography at the University of Minnesota, he studied where 275,366 recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, once known as food stamps) in the Twin Cities purchased their groceries from 2009 to 2010.

Shannon discovered that SNAP recipients often travel to supermarkets outside their communities. “You can’t just assume people shop where they live,” Shannon told Cynthia Boyd of the MinnPost. These people shop outside their neighborhoods in part “because of perceived better quality and lower prices of suburban stores,” Shannon said.

Shannon’s findings are detailed in “Rethinking Food Deserts: An Initial Report of Findings,” published in Social Science & Medicine. On his website, he offers an interactive map showing where those who receive SNAP benefits live, where they redeem their benefits, and the types of stores they shop at. Shannon isn’t suggesting that communities stop working on the problem of food deserts, but he told Boyd, “We need more sophisticated ways about seeing how people access the food system.” He just might be the researcher to advance these studies.

MORE: This Innovative Idea Brings Produce Directly to Low-Income Communities

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