Food Deserts are a complex issue: one of their most striking features are the negative health outcomes faced by their residents. Last year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council hosted a workshop to discuss the public health effects of food deserts.
The research is interesting: while, as one would assume, a healthier diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats was shown to slow weight gain, weight was not lost unless these foods replaced the energy-dense "fringe foods" of the food desert - but, that being said, a healthier diet did offer improvement of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and the risk of some cancers.
Even though stores other than traditional grocers are able to sell healthy foods, researchers have tracked the food desert primarily by looking at areas without a major grocery store. Not surprisingly, active food deserts in the US tend to coincide with a high incidence of poverty. Mapping shows that people living in them also have a higher than average rate of obesity and other diet-related diseases.
Interestingly, presenters pointed out that grocers, or a lack thereof, are only one piece of the public health issue presented by the food desert - especially when healthy food costs more than fringe foods. "Solving the food desert problem might not alone improve health or necessarily change what individuals eat. However, understanding where food deserts exist in the United States can provide guidance on where changes can be made to improve the availability of affordable healthy food options."