National chains and retailers have joined with Michelle Obama to promote the First Lady’s campaign to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to food deserts across America.
According to the USDA, a food desert exists in areas where 33% or 500 people, whichever is less, live more than a mile from a grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.
A USDA study [pdf] found that 2.3 million households do not have access to a car and live more than a mile from a supermarket, forcing people to shop for food at convenience stores, where expensive processed food is the only dietary choice.
This map colors each county in America by the percentage of households in food deserts, according to the USDA’s definition.
USAToday claims national chains, including Wal-Mart, Walgreens and SuperValu, and regional retailers have agreed to open or expand more than 1,500 stores to bring more nutritious and fresh food to underserved communities.
These changes will serve about 9.5 million people and could create tens of thousands of jobs, says Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council. Currently, 23.5 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — live in low-income areas that lack stores that are likely to sell affordable and nutritious foods, she says.
Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs, says Wal-Mart will open 275 to 300 stores in food deserts between now and 2016, and already has opened 218 stores in such neighborhoods since 2007.
“The Walmart customer deserves to have access to healthy food at prices they can afford,” Dach says.
Walgreens’ spokeswoman Tiffani Washington says Walgreens will expand its food offerings to including fresh fruits and vegetables at least 1,000 stores, and has begun pilot projects at stores in its hometown and in San Francisco to sell fresh, loose fruits and vegetables, prepackaged salads and fruits as well as sandwiches and partially prepared foods that can be cooked at home.
SuperValu will build 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in areas that have little to no access to fresh produce.
“We know from the research that when people live in communities that have greater access to supermarkets, they consume more foods like fresh fruits and vegetables,” Barnes says.
Recent research published in The British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that eating a diet high in processed food increases the risk of depression. Data on diet among 3,500 middle-aged civil servants was compared with depression five years later.
“Those who ate the most whole foods had a 26% lower risk of future depression than those who at the least whole foods. By contrast people with a diet high in processed food had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate very few processed foods.”