Farmers’-market season brings an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables — for some of us. In reality, fresh produce isn’t for sale at all in many American neighborhoods. And even if it were, many people who live in those so-called food deserts couldn’t afford it.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that 2.3 million American households, or 2.2 percent of the population, live more than a mile from a supermarket and don’t have access to a vehicle. To make matters worse, the only food available in many of those places is often of the fast-food or processed variety.
“This is one of the primary reasons we see obesity and health-related issues associated with these low-income places,” says Steven R. Miller, a professor at Michigan State University’s Center for Economic Analysis. Miller co-authored a study on the cost-effectiveness of food that compared the prices and nutritional value of 10 common fruits and vegetables in fresh, canned and frozen forms.
“The popular media at this point seem to point out that [food] has to be fresh. And that is just really not the case,” Miller says. “When we look at the nutritional content of these different packaging options, we see that they are very comparable.” And canned and frozen foods don’t go bad within a few days to a week, like much fresh produce does. That’s crucial in food deserts, where a trip to the grocery store may be challenging enough that it can only happen every few weeks.
Price is also a deciding factor in the low-income neighborhoods likely to be classified as food deserts. In his study, Miller and his team found that canned vegetables were less expensive per cup than either fresh or frozen options. Canned fruit was lower in price than, or comparably priced to, its fresh or frozen counterparts.
Produce at farmers’ markets can be even more expensive than fresh produce bought at a grocery store. Prices at farmers’ markets vary across the country. But in one study, researchers compared how much 12 types of fresh fruits and vegetables (and eggs) cost at nine farmers’ markets, 10 grocery stores and two food co-ops in Vermont. They found that the grocery stores were cheaper for 64 percent of the items compared.
“Just about everything costs more at a farmers’ market because the stuff was probably picked that morning,” says Jeannie Nichols, a senior food safety educator at Michigan State University. “Fresh” is considered premium and therefore means marked-up prices. “At a grocery store, produce is usually picked from somewhere further away. It’s cheaper because it takes longer to get to the store. They also buy huge amounts to keep costs lower.”
The time it takes to get the food to a grocery store also affects its nutritional value. “Many canned fruits and vegetables contain the same amount of nutrients as fresh varieties, especially when you compare canned goods to supermarket produce, which loses nutrients the longer it takes to get there,” Nichols says.
With canned goods offering the same nutrition at a lower price point with a longer shelf life, it’s easy to see why they’re championed as a solution for people in food deserts seeking healthy food. “How do we look at the policy implications?” Miller says. “When we start looking at these food deserts and the obesity and the nutrition and health issues, what are the solutions? This was one of the directions we chose to look at.”