USDA tries to fix food deserts through better access

Since the concept of a "food desert" was born a decade or two ago, it has presented the food industry with a chicken or the egg dilemma.

Do low-income areas not buy healthier food because there isn't any, or are healthier food options not available because consumers in low-income areas don't buy them?

It seems the only way to know would be to flood poorer population centers with healthy food, including fresh produce, which would eliminate the desert.

With all these fresh produce options, would people buy them?

While that flood isn't likely, a smaller version is on the horizon.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a final regulation that will require retailers who redeem Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options, including fresh produce.

This means many small retailers and convenience stores who redeem food stamps will have to carry more fresh produce.

Many of these stores are in so-called food deserts, so the greater availability of fruits and vegetables ought to make them lose that designation.

There's hope that this kind of effort will help solve the health and life expectancy disparity between low-income Americans and higher-income brackets.

There's also the issue of restricting food stamps from being used to purchase less healthy food.

There's a difference between having freedom to eat what you want and having the freedom to eat what you want when taxpayers are paying the bill.

Stats show a problem

Whether it's an issue of access or choice, statistics show lower-income consumers are buying less healthy food.

The most recent USDA redemption data available from 2011 shows that SNAP households buy fewer fruit and vegetables than non-SNAP households.

The data shows SNAP and non-SNAP households spend the highest percentage of their food dollars on meat, but SNAP households spend the next most on sweet beverages (9.3% of overall food spending), while vegetables come in at No. 3 (7.2%) and fruit No. 8 (4.7%).

Meanwhile, non-SNAP households have vegetables No. 2 (9.1%), fruit No. 4 (7.2%) and sweet beverages No. 5 (7.1%).

Hopefully this change to the SNAP program to force more small retailers and convenience stores to carry healthier items will improve access to food such as fresh produce.

And that they buy them.

Produce groups are optimistic the changes will improve nutrition for consumers and still allow these small retail stores to remain profitable.

In 2014, the United Fresh Produce Association worked with the National Association of Convenience Stores to improve fresh and fresh-cut produce distribution supply chains so convenience stores can offer a wider variety of fresh produce.

Online help

USDA has another plan to help SNAP participants: online groceries.

Early this year, USDA named the following companies to be involved in a pilot program allowing SNAP users to buy groceries online: Amazon, FreshDirect, Safeway, ShopRite, Hy-Vee, Hart's Local Grocers and Dash's Market.

The pilot will take place in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

The USDA says it plans to learn from the pilot and eventually make online purchasing an option for SNAP participants nationwide.

Once low-income areas have greater access to healthier food like fruits and vegetables, we will know whether to address the chicken or the egg.

Greg Johnson is The Packer's editor. E-mail him at gjohnson@farmjournal.com.

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