Britain’s Towns & Village are Becoming Food Deserts.

7 December 2007

Dr. Hillary Shaw
Dr. Hillary Shaw

National research conducted by Harper Adams University College, Shropshire has identified that many areas in the UK have become ‘Food Deserts’. By mapping the location of supermarkets and smaller grocery stores and determining whether they stocked ten or more different types of fruit and vegetable Dr Hillary Shaw, Senior Lecturer at the University College has identified a trend which has proven negative dietary, health and economic implications for local residents.  

Food deserts have been described as areas where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food. Everyone should have access to healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, however, this is not always the case and a food desert can quickly develop. It is recommended that residents should not have to walk any more than 500m to a shop that sells healthy foods. In many cases Dr Shaw’s research identified that there are stores but they sell little or no fresh food.

In Shrewsbury, a town near the University College, there are cases where residents have to travel over 1,000m to their nearest shop that stocks fresh food.  

Councillor for Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council’s Bagley Ward, Dr Maxwell Winchester, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the University College, has been made aware of the research by his colleague.  

Councillor Dr Winchester says “I am extremely concerned about this issue which is prolific in several areas of my Ward. It is particularly problematic for residents who are without a car, have mobility problems or are elderly. In many instances a resident has to travel over 1,000m to their local shop. Food deserts have detrimental long-term implications to public health and our local economy.”

The research covers a large geographical area with mapping being conducted in areas like North London, Birmingham, Hampshire, Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Somerset, Southampton and Stafford.

The Food Desert problem is country-wide. In some villages a resident has to travel for up to 8Km to their nearest stores that stocks fresh food.

Nationally 29% of unaffiliated independent grocery stores cease to trade between 2001 and 2007. This is an alarming amount and the subsequent effects are extreme. Food deserts lead to dietary issues with excess sugar, fat, salt and calories being consumed which can lead to all sorts of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, anaemia, cancer and coronary problems to name but a few. All this then puts a strain on public services.

Food deserts can be a huge burden for residents with mobility issues, non-vehicle households and those with a poor income. A journey to the shops can present serious problems with some either having to walk or take public transport, which is sometimes limited or non-existent.  

It is not as much of a problem for those who have a motorcar and can travel to larger supermarkets which are increasing seen on the outskirts of towns. They have more variety, lower prices and extended opening hours. However, with an aging population (by 2060 there are predicted to be, in the UK, 7 million aged between 65 and 74, and 2.9 million aged over 85) and less and less local stores the problems are set to spiral.

Daniel Kawczynski the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury & Atcham is concerned about the wider local issues such as the negative affects that food deserts have on other local outlets, the appearance of the streetscape, public transport and the increased pressures due to poor public health with the biggest cost of food deserts is though to be the medical costs of a poor diet. He comments “I believe that it is essential for fresh, healthy, local produce to be available to everyone in Shropshire. The effects of these ‘food deserts’ are so wide ranging, from the health impacts of eating unhealthy highly-processed foods, through the environmental impact of travelling further afield to buy groceries, through to the negative impact on our local farmers of their produce not being retailed locally.” 

Independent Retailer Tracey Colley, Director of Deli on the Square, with premises in both Shrewsbury and Ludlow understands the benefits of stocking fresh food and the importance of the services given by local outlets says “I am fully aware of the difficulties Shrewsbury town centre residents have in readily accessing fresh produce, which is a stark contrast to Ludlow where you can walk 10 paces and buy fresh, seasonal and locally grown produce every day. There are less and less outlets to purchase fresh products in Shrewsbury. I am a member of the recently formed Slow Food Shrewsbury who encourage locals to look at benefits of tasting, eating and understanding fresh food – not just local foods either, but food that has been produced cleanly and fairly. As a small independent retailer we spend time with our customers helping and advising them with ingredients and how they can create simple, delicious foods rather than turning to ready meals and take-away foods.”

Further information on Food Deserts is available from www.fooddeserts.org or by contacting Dr Hillary Shaw hshaw@harper-adams.ac.uk 

Food Deserts Research and Mapping:
The following areas have been included within Dr Shaw’s research.
London:                      North London
Midlands:                   Birmingham, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Stafford, Telford
North East:                 Jarrow, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
South Coast:              Southampton, Winchester
South West:               Somerset
Yorkshire and Humberside: Leeds, Hull, North Lincolnshire, Scunthorpe
France:                       Nantes, Cevennes

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