Surprising Perceptions of Access to Healthy Food in Rural Latino Communities

A recent study that conducted interviews with mainly Latino residents of agricultural communities in California found that most considered affordability, not access, a major barrier to buying healthy foods.

A recent study that conducted interviews primarily with Latino residents of agricultural communities in California revealed that most disagreed with perceptions of their areas as “food deserts.” Many reported that nonretail alternatives to supermarkets help ensure access to fresh produce, although affordability remains a concern.

Previous studies have raised concerns about the lack of access to healthy produce in rural low-resource areas, also called “food deserts” due to their isolated nature and limited options for purchasing fresh produce. Lack of access or inability to afford fresh produce can restrict these residents’ options for consuming enough fruits and vegetables, putting them at risk for obesity and other preventable chronic diseases.

However, the existing literature on barriers to accessing healthy food in these environments largely neglects the opinions of those who live in these communities. Therefore, the authors of this study recruited 79 predominantly Latino residents from 2 agricultural communities in California. The researchers conducted focus groups, interviews, and surveys to explore the residents’ perceptions of access to healthy foods, then published their findings in Preventing Chronic Disease.

Surprisingly, most of the study participants “reported ample access to produce in their neighborhoods.” Over 70% agreed that their community had a large selection of fruits and vegetables available, while just 15.4% disagreed. Furthermore, almost two-thirds agreed that these fruits and vegetables were high quality. Some participants even said that the abundance and quality of the fruit available in their agricultural community was the best aspect of living in their neighborhood.

Respondents reported that discount or dollar stores were the main retail sources of produce, but also emphasized the importance of nonretail sources, such as fruit and vegetable stands, mobile fruit vendors, and exchanges of produce among neighbors, many of whom work in the agricultural industry year-round. For instance, one said that when these workers “got something extra, they’ll pass it around the neighborhood.”

While most did not perceive physical access to fresh produce as a major problem, 65% of respondents agreed that healthy foods like fruits and vegetables were too expensive in their community. Many cited price as a factor in their preference for nonretail options like flea markets, as opposed to the retail stores they perceived as being too expensive. One participant lamented that “even the dollar store isn’t the dollar store anymore.”

Many participants reported that abundant access to cheap fast food was more of an issue than a lack of access to healthy food. Their communities have twice as many fast food chains as grocery stores, making them examples of a so-called “food swamp.” Respondents explained that it was difficult to make healthy food choices for their families when they had the option to spend less money on a larger amount of unhealthy food.

Residents’ proposed solutions to improve the food environment “centered on calls to increase affordability of retail produce, seek out alternate nonretail outlets, and increase healthy food in existing settings,” indicating the cultural nuances specific to these communities.