Consumer choice and the retail food environment : a reexamination of food deserts



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The ‘food desert’ has become a popular metaphor for describing fragmented pockets of America’s retail food environment characterized by limited access to affordable healthy foods and consequent heightened incidences of obesity and other diet-related health problems. Although researchers have addressed the locations and boundaries of food deserts, influential cross-sectional analyses are limited in that they cannot identify the direction of causality between the food environment and health outcomes. This study approaches the problem from an ecological perspective that examines the interplay between retailer and consumer in urban and rural settings of both food desert and non-food desert areas in the Texas South Plains centered on Lubbock. The principle methods of data collection entailed observations of purchases at full-service grocery stores and administration of a short survey as a means to determining what foods are being purchased and why. Additional semi-structured interviews with store representatives, along with several individuals located in underserved areas, and a general familiarization with the larger retail food environment, focusing on convenience and discount stores, provided important context to the research. The results challenge many existing assumptions, indicating problems associated with linking food deserts to poor health outcomes without accounting for additional variables, and further provides strong evidence that consumer choice is responsible for the larger retail food environment.