It's been more than two years since a new Walmart was proposed as a solution to the food desert status in South Dallas. The store finally opened this year, but now researchers are saying grocery stores like it will likely have no impact on the health of nearby residents.
"Food desert" is used to describe neighborhoods that lack reasonable access to fresh food. Throughout many neighborhoods in southern Dallas, the only stores that sell groceries offer the processed snacks and fried foods that have been contributing to the area's increased risk of illness. The hope was that providing access to fresher ingredients would help residents make more healthful decisions, but Stephen Matthews, professor at Penn State University, says it's not enough, according to a recent NPR story.
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Matthews' team surveyed residents in a Philadelphia neighborhood before and after a grocery store with a wide selection of produce opened nearby, and they found that the new store had no impact on how neighborhood residents ate. Matthews isn't arguing that we should abandon efforts to increase access to fresh foods, but they show new stores alone won't have an impact on community health. It takes time to rebuild habits and learn how to work those fresh groceries into a family's routine.
An ongoing UCLA project offers that residents in these neighborhoods also need to be taught what to do with their newfound produce. Through cooking demonstrations and other promotional efforts, they claim they're increasing demand for produce in East Los Angeles, for instance.
In southern Dallas, access to fresh food might continue to improve. Just as the Walmart opened, WFAA recently reported that the City Council received a plan to fund the demolition and redevelopment of a partially vacant property in South Dallas, to include a grocery store. But if these studies prove correct, the store won't be enough.
It's obvious, according to Matthews, that lots more work needs to be done to break people out of eating habits reinforced by decades of limited access to good food. So even if Dallas continues to successfully court big-name grocers, it doesn't matter until they invest in programs that will back those efforts up.