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Healthy Food Retailing

What Is it?

This tool focuses on increasing access to retail outlets that sell nutritious, affordable food in low-income communities of color.

For decades, low-income urban and rural communities have faced limited opportunities to purchase healthy food. In the 1960s and 1970s, white, middle-class families left urban centers for homes in the suburbs, and supermarkets fled with them--taking jobs and tax revenues along with their offerings of healthy, affordable food. Low-income urban residents with limited transportation options did much of their shopping at small local stores that had limited selection and high prices. Rural communities, like underserved urban areas, confronted limited and high-priced food options, and did not benefit from the jobs and revenues a grocery store could bring. Advocates sought to increase access to healthy food, but for decades the problem seemed intractable. The poor paid more for their food and had fewer healthy, affordable options. Disparities in access continue today, contributing to obesity and related health problems. The good news, however, is that there are now many strategies being implemented across the country to address this issue.

Increasing access to affordable, good quality, healthy food is one strategy to address the obesity epidemic and related conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, which disproportionately affect low-income people of color. Scientists and medical professionals agree that poor diet and lack of physical activity are key contributors to obesity.1 Advocates are addressing the problem from multiple fronts, working to maintain federal and local nutrition assistance programs, using education to influence individual choices about diet and exercise, and engaging in advocacy to improve opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity. Individuals make choices about their eating and exercise habits, but their choices are affected by the environments in which they live.

One important reason many poor families have poor diets is because they lack access to places that sell decent quality, nutritious foods at affordable prices. Many studies have shown that low-income communities of color have fewer supermarkets than wealthier, white communities.2 Families in these communities are forced to make difficult choices about their food purchases because of this "grocery gap," or disparity in access to healthy food, along with income and time constraints that result from poverty. In many low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities, the only choices are foods high in fat, calories, and sugar that are available at convenience and corner stores and fast food restaurants.

This tool offers concerned residents, policymakers, business leaders, and advocates ideas and strategies for improving access to healthy food in underserved communities. While there are challenges to increasing healthy food retailing, there are also many examples of how these challenges have been overcome in states and communities across the country. This tool discusses three of the most promising strategies: developing new grocery stores, improving the selection and quality of food in existing smaller stores, and starting and sustaining farmers' markets.

Last Updated: August 2005