Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fresh Food Demand Not a Matter of Income

One of the most common questions we get when talking about opening a grocery store in West Oakland is whether low income residents actually want to purchase fresh foods or if, in fact, they prefer purchasing the processed foods that often make up a majority of their diets. This question comes, in part, from a perception that low income residents tend to purchase mostly processed, packaged foods and very little fresh foods and produce. We answer this question with three points: 

1) There is overwhelming evidence that low-income shoppers want to and do buy fresh foods.  
A 2006 study by the Alameda County Public Health Department of "West Oakland Neighbors’ Preferences for Eating and Buying Food" found that 76% of West Oakland respondents would purchase more fresh foods if they were available nearby, were affordable, and of high quality and freshness. A study entitled "Food Desert to food Oasis" looked at the food preferences of low-income residents and found that freshness/quality ranked in the top three stated preferences (the other too were convenience and affordability). These are just a couple of the many studies that exist that show that low-income people strongly want, and often make great efforts to buy, quality fresh foods. The nonprofit People's Grocery's experience over the last eight years of working in West Oakland affirms this fact based on what residents have communicated about the foods they want to be able to purchase. 

2) When low-income people buy lots of processed foods it's usually because of a lack of options. Without citing a bunch of more studies (happy to share if you ask for them) there is ample data about the preponderance of processed foods in low-income neighborhoods and the deficiency in access to fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables and foods with more whole, unprocessed ingredients. So a big reason for why low-income people often buy lots of processed foods and little fresh foods is because of the lack of availability of those fresh food choices in their neighborhoods, not necessarily their preferences for those foods. Again, People's Grocery's experience has been that West Oakland residents would really prefer to have fresh food choices and to consume less processed foods.

3) A low rate of consumption of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is prevalent among all segments of American society, not just among low-income people. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently came out with a report that ranked the United States as the "fattest nation" among advanced countries. The Centers for Disease Control reported in September 2010 that "most Americans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables", with only 26.3% of the population eating three or more servings of vegetables per day. So it's clear that the problem of not eating enough fresh foods and eating too much processed foods is a national issue, not just an issue relegated to low-income communities. Any bias toward purchasing processed foods among low-income shoppers is a reflection of a trend we're seeing in communities of all income levels.

While misperception continues to keep national chain food retailers out of low-income neighborhoods, or results in only attracting chain retailers that don't particularly focus on fresh foods, there are efforts by community groups throughout the country to develop retail models that emphasize and excel at providing fresh foods in underserved communities. PCM will focus on procuring and retailing the best kinds of fresh and affordable foods that residents have long expressed a desire for.    

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