“The results of this study find that individuals living in rural areas, particularly food desserts, may be at increased risk of negative health effects as a result of more limited access to higher quality foods compared to those living in urban areas,” says the report of the University of Kentucky study, “Food Cost Disparities in Rural Communities,” published in Health Promotion Practice.
Researchers analyzed the per-serving cost of 92 foods four times over a 10-month period in the primary grocery stores in four Kentucky counties, two rural and two urban. One rural county was considered a food desert, meaning that fresh produce isn’t relatively available. The commonly purchased foods in the study were assigned to one of four categories based on their nutritional value.
Not surprisingly, the cheapest foods were those with the least nutritional value, such as canned fruit in heavy syrup, cereals with high-fructose corn syrup, and processed meats.
Foods that are a bit more nutritional, but mainly processed convenience foods, were more expensive in rural counties than urban counties.
Foods that were considered nutritious, but not the most nutritious, such as white rice, oats, whole-grain bran cereals and frozen fish, cost the most in the rural county with the highest poverty rate.
The cost of the most nutritional items varied by county, with the “most striking finding” being that “the rural food desert had significantly higher per-serving costs among the most nutritious food items, compared to the other three counties,” 6 to 8 cents higher per item, the report said.
Within each county, the study did not find much difference in food cost among the foods in each of the four nutrition categories.
However, it did find that highly processed convenience foods in urban counties were more expensive than more nutritional foods, and suggested that those living in urban areas could afford more plant-based foods and fewer processed foods as an “effective strategy to improve overall dietary quality without increasing food budgets.”
The study draws attention to the SNAP or food-stamp program, which makes no allowances for food cost differences between regions or counties, and suggests that its model be changed to be more like the Women, Infants and Children program, which uses a portion-based system: Participants buy a set number of ounces or servings of dairy products, whole grains, and fresh produce each month, irrespective of price. This approach “has the potential to adequately meet all participants’ nutritional needs, irrespective of differences in food prices,” wrote the researchers, Frances Hardin-Fanning and Mary Kay Rayens of the UK College of Nursing.