Burgers, gas stations, and fried chicken — it’s hard to find good food in low-income neighborhoods.
Supermarkets and groceries are rare. You might have to travel miles to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Fast food, on the other hand, is plentiful.
So what do you make for dinner?
For families in search of healthier options, even in these so-called “food deserts,” turning to bargain or “dollar” chain stores could be the best option.
In a new study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), looked at the quality of produce and other healthy food options at discount stores and found that, well, it’s pretty good.
In fact, the fruits and vegetables at dollar stores are just as good as what you’d find at a regular grocery store. Food was generally priced comparably as well, and sometimes cheaper.
Researchers say the findings have real implications for nutrition and public health.
“By recognizing these outlets as community assets, we can expand the options within the community food environment for public health outreach and interventions,” Courtney Coughenour, PhD, first author and assistant professor in the School of Community Health Sciences, UNLV, told Healthline.
“Cost, quality, and availability are established barriers to healthy eating. Recognition of these stores as part of the food system may expand access to some who might not have otherwise had it, and/or provide a less expensive alternative.”
Coughenour and her colleagues indexed every grocery store in the metropolitan Las Vegas area. Using general definitions of the types of stores (national or regional chain groceries, for example) they looked at the availability of different types of foods, their prices, and quality.
Using a tool called the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey in Stores (NEMS-S), researchers assigned stores different scores based on these factors and compared them.
The NEMS-S system divides produce into two categories. “Acceptable” is defined as top quality, fresh produce that is firm and clean. “Unacceptable” produce is bruised, old, mushy, cracked, or moldy.
As might be expected, traditional grocery stores scored significantly higher in “availability,” indicating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as healthier options of other types of food such as whole-grain bread.
However, in terms of quality, discount stores held their own.
There was “not a significant difference in the quality of fresh fruits and vegetables,” wrote the authors.
High quality, lower cost
At a discount store you’ll also likely pay less.
According to the research, nearly 85 percent of produce and 90 percent of non-produce items were significantly less expensive compared to traditional grocery stores.
“While they have fewer options, they are a source of high quality, more affordable options. If you are on a budget, or just simply shopping for your family, shopping at Dollar Discount stores that sell produce can result in savings,” said Coughenour. “And for those who are brand loyal, there are additional studies out there that find nutritional equivalency from on-brand and off-brand products.”
Nutrition is a vital part of public health, yet access to good quality food for low-income individuals can be problematic. Today 11.5 million individuals in the United States live in areas that are more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Living in these “food deserts” makes eating healthy more difficult.
According to Coughenour, her research highlights the importance of discount stores as a way to help bridge the gap for low-income neighborhoods and gain access to better quality food.
“Some of the cheapest foods in the world are some of the healthiest. Beans are a great example of this and can be found dry or canned in many dollar stores. Frozen fruits and vegetables without any added sugars are also an example, and finally, many whole grains can be purchased at dollar stores, particularly brown rice.” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian, told Healthline.
She added, “The key is knowing what to do with these ingredients. Many of my patients would eat more beans if they knew how to prepare them, or have the idea that frozen vegetables are inferior to fresh, which in many instances is not the case. Education is key.”
You can read more on the topic of finding healthy food choices in a food desert here.