Food Deserts Swamped with Processed Foods

Here at The Oldish, we pay quite a bit of attention to how a nutritious diet is not only an important part of a healthy lifestyle but also a form of medicine that contributes to greater well-being in older age.  In communities where access to grocery stores is scarce, pharmacies are increasingly filling in the gap, supplying food to people who can’t travel the distance to a proper food market.  But there’s a problem that has been going unnoticed until recently, the food stocked in pharmacies across the United States is far from healthy and is comprised mainly of highly processed, shelf-stable foods. The situation is similar in Canada as well.

According to a recent report in The Guardian, in 2017 the drugstore chain CVS held a 3.9 percent share of the grocery market, Walgreens had 2.4 percent; and while this seems a small slice of the pie, Trader Joe’s only held 1.4 percent and Whole Foods had 1 percent.  It’s also important to note that the number of locations of pharmacies in the United States far outstrips the number of grocery stores which, because of low margins, are much more likely to close, leaving many communities, especially low-income areas, without access to fresh produce and other healthy food choices.   This trend is creating “food deserts”  where communities are “swamped” with unhealthy, processed foods that are associated with increased rates of chronic illness including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

In Detroit, the Michigan Department of Agriculture has labeled 19 neighborhoods as a “food desert” where access to quality and affordable food is lacking forcing many residents to buy food at convenience stores or from fast food restaurants.  With unreliable public transportation, older adults who no longer drive have an especially hard time finding healthy fresh food to purchase at a reasonable price.  Urban farms, while beneficial, yield a relatively small harvest and with Michigan’s long winters are not a complete solution. Free shuttles to markets on Saturdays have also been a help in giving more residents access to fresh foods. 

In response to this growing problem, pharmacies are starting to stock more fresh foods and recently Walgreens began testing a pilot partnership with Kroger to add a small grocery section in several drugstores in Kentucky.  With improved education about nutrition, it is hoped that more fresh foods will be available for purchase at convenience stores in underserved areas and that residents will better understand how processed foods high in sugar and saturated fats affects wellness. 

Learn more about how ultra-processed foods can shorten life span by following this link to a recent study published the JAMA Internal Medicine.