Most convenience stores have a wide variety of chips, colorful candies and bottles of sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages. While shoppers can buy calorie-heavy foods wrapped in pretty packages in these locations, what they usually can't find are the fresh produce, whole grains and low-fat dairy products necessary for a healthy diet.
These stores are the only nearby food source for millions of Americans living in what are called food deserts, because they are isolated from affordable healthy food. In recent studies, University of Georgia foods and nutrition researchers uncovered the unequal distribution of food stores in one Southeast community. The first study covered access to stores for people using food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, while the second study looked at what healthy foods were available at supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores. Both studies found access to healthy food is most problematic in low-income, predominately black neighborhoods.
"Easy access to affordable healthful foods is essential to promoting health and preventing diseases," said Jung Sun Lee, assistant professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences and co-author of a pair of studies examining the food environment on the Florida Panhandle.
"Research examining food environments is a relatively new area in the nutritional sciences," she said. "Understanding the distribution of different kinds of food stores and the kinds and quality of the foods they offer has the potential to provide an explanation of why and how individuals are able or unable to follow dietary recommendations."
The Florida-Georgia connection surfaced when Connie Betterley, a community health promotion coordinator, worked with fellow Leon County Health Department administrators to collect data with a goal of making policy changes and interventions to improve access to healthy food. One of those collaborators was UGA graduate Sohyun Park, who contacted Lee about evaluating the data.
Results from the first-ever study of food deserts in relation to food assistance benefits accepting stores will be published by UGA researchers in the March issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
"The size and types of stores available may have considerable influence on what people purchase and consume, ultimately influencing their health," said Samantha Rigby, a former UGA graduate student and study co-author. "Access to supermarkets has been shown to promote healthful food choices, and these stores are the most likely type of food store to provide the greatest variety of foods at the lowest prices."
SNAP, formerly the Food Stamps Program, provides food assistance to more than 43 million Americans a month. Florida is home to 2.9 million recipients; 10 percent of the population in the study area relies on assistance for food.
Primarily black neighborhoods tend to have less access to SNAP-accepting supermarkets than white or mixed race neighborhoods. In fact, no supermarket was available in predominately black neighborhoods in Leon County. SNAP-receiving residents in primarily black neighborhoods in the county may have limited shopping options because the food store type that is most likely to accept benefits, supermarkets, is not present.