Access to fresh produce isn’t easy

♦ Clara Gillens-Eromosele, a community partner of Sustainable Long Island and acting director of the Roosevelt Community Revitalization Group, recently responded to an oped in Newsday that focused on Americans making the choice to eat fresh, healthy produce. Below is Clara’s letter to the editor, followed by the original article:

Letter to the Editor:

In a recent column [“Eat your vegetables,” Opinion, Jan. 30], writer Daniel Akst states that the reason low-income Americans struggle to eat fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables cannot be attributed to affordability or the lack of access to produce.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million Americans don’t have a supermarket within a mile of their home, and those who can shop in town for groceries often find retail prices in convenience stores as much as 49 percent higher for a selection of food long on canned goods and short on fresh produce.

Why travel to the next town if you can get a quick bite to eat up the block? Do we take into account limited resources, such as time and transportation? If you can get a meal off the dollar menu – why should you break the bank for basic ingredients?

Supermarkets are now beginning to follow the example that many farmers’ markets have set, opening in underserved communities such as Roosevelt and North Bellport, while offering fresh fruit and vegetables at an affordable price.

Original Article:

Everyone likes a bargain. So as part of a laudable five-year initiative to make the foods it sells healthier, Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut the price of its fruits and vegetables. The hope is that people will then buy more of them.

Will it work? Probably not.

There’s a story going around out there that many Americans aren’t eating healthy foods because they can’t afford it. If this were true, our dietary problems – and they are many – would be easy to solve.

But the great majority of Americans – not just the poor – aren’t eating healthy, and most are affluent enough not to be bothered by the cost of carrots and squash. For most of us, it’s just not about price.

Maybe, though, price matters more to grocery shoppers who have less money. If so, Wal-Mart’s price cuts might induce the poor to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, publishes a newsletter called Amber Waves, which reports on the agency’s economic research. Here’s a headline from the September 2009 issue: “Price Reductions Have Little Effect on Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by Low-Income Americans.”

The USDA economists report that fruit and vegetable purchases aren’t very sensitive to price – and neither are snack food purchases, which is why subsidizing arugula and taxing Cheetos are likely be equally ineffective. In a 2008 study, USDA economists looked at households below 130 percent of the poverty line (a cutoff for food stamps) and found that small increases in income were not spent on fruits and vegetables. “These foods do not appear to be a priority for most low-income households,” the authors wrote.

In households earning up to 185 percent of the poverty line, a 10 percent increase in income did lead to higher spending on fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the increase was less than 2 percent – which is awfully close to zero.

But if cost isn’t the determining factor, maybe the poor lack access to produce. Perhaps many of them live in what’s been called a “food desert,” a place where only unhealthy comestibles can be had.

This too seems unlikely. The vast majority of Americans, including the poor, have cars. And most of the poor can get to some fruits and vegetables: Another USDA report notes that just 2.2 percent of households live more than a mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle. In other words, 98 percent of American families either live near a supermarket or can drive to one.

On top of all this, Wal-Mart’s prices for produce, like all the other groceries it sells, are already quite low. That’s probably why it’s by far the nation’s leading grocer.

That doesn’t mean Wal-Mart is doing a bad thing or wasting its time. If nothing else, cutting its produce prices will put more money in the pockets of its many poor and blue-collar shoppers, who can use a break.

And Wal-Mart is going further. It plans to change the formulation of products sold under its Great Value house brand to reduce sodium, trans fats and sugars. It will even press big food companies like Kraft to make their products healthier as well. This could be highly effective, since these changes won’t require shoppers to do anything. Their diet will improve automatically.

That’s important, because human behavior is hard to change – particularly when eating is involved. Let’s face it: Americans aren’t avoiding healthy foods because we can’t afford them. We love a bargain, sure. Just not on Brussels sprouts.

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