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What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases Across the Socioeconomic Spectrum

Working paper #774
Jessie Handbury, Ilya Rahkovsky and Molly Schnell

The poor diets of many consumers are often attributed to limited access to healthy foods. In this paper, we use detailed data describing the healthfulness of household food purchases and the retail landscapes in which these consumers are making these decisions to study the role of access in explaining why some people in the United States eat more nutritious foods than others. We first confirm that households with lower income and education purchase less healthful foods. We then measure the spatial variation in the average nutritional quality of available food products across local markets, revealing that healthy foods are less likely to be available in low-income neighborhoods. Though significant, the spatial differences in access are small and explain only a fraction of the variation that we observe in the nutritional content of household purchases. Systematic socioeconomic disparities in household purchases persist after controlling for access: even in the same store, more educated households purchase more healthful foods. Our results indicate that policies aimed at improving access to healthy foods for underserved socioeconomic groups will leave most of the disparities in nutritional consumption intact.

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