'Food deserts' depriving towns of fresh fruit and vegetables

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The Independent Online

The demise of greengrocers has turned large areas of the country into "food deserts" where people have inadequate access to fresh fruit and vegetables, according to a retailing academic.

Even market towns such as Shrewsbury and Winchester have pockets of nutritional barrenness where residents fail to obtain five portions of fresh food a day, said Dr Hillary Shaw, of Harper Adams University College, in Shropshire.

He estimated that ensuing health problems such as heart disease and diabetes were costing Britain 10bn a year in healthcare costs and lost productivity.

Dr Shaw began his research in 2000, plotting the location of residential areas and shops on 500sq m grids. Since then he has checked around 6,000sq km, covering the whole of Birmingham, much of Hampshire, Somerset, Shrewsbury and parts of north London and Stevenage. In each area, he has visited shops to see if they sold 10 or more items of fresh produce.

He found that around 20 per cent of rural areas and 25 per cent of urban areas were "food deserts" where people have to walk more than 500 metres to reach a shop selling a good amount of fruit and vegetables.

In 1997, Tessa Jowell, then a health minister, defined a food desert as an area "where people do not have easy access to healthy, fresh foods particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility" and said, ideally, there would be a supply of fresh food within 500 metres of every home.

In Scunthorpe, Dr Shaw found the number of food deserts had increased markedly between 2000 and 2004 but now the increase had slowed or stopped. He said food deserts most disadvantaged the poor, the disabled and the elderly.

Deprived urban housing estates were particularly prone to practical or cultural difficulties sourcing fresh food. But Dr Shaw said there were also problems in villages where the only shop had closed, leaving car-less pensioners stranded, and in more affluent estates and towns, where most residents drove to out-of-town superstores.

Dr Shaw blamed the closure of small local stores for increasing food deserts nationally, 29 per cent of unaffiliated independent grocers closed down between 2001 and 2007, while supermarkets have expanded. He also said that affordability and attitudes towards food exacerbated the problem and called for more education to improve diets in deprived areas.

Referring to places such as Shrewsbury, he said: "We tend to think 'It's a nice picturesque town' but there are areas that are food deserts, where people have to walk 750m or a kilometre to reach the shops. This pushes people into eating unhealthily. They are eating ready meals and tins high in sugar, fat and salt.

"As a result they get type-II diabetes, which can result in blindness and amputations; and obesity, which can result in heart disease and cancer."

'It is particularly problematic for residents without cars'

The medieval market town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire has five food deserts, Dr Shaw claims.

Residents in the suburbs of Shirehall and Monkmoor to the west, Meole Brace and Belle Vue to the south and Copthorne to the east all have accessibility problems. So, too, do those in the poor Coton Hill area and the relatively affluent estate at Mount Pleasant to the north of the town.

To the concern of local politicians, Dr Shaw found some residents had to travel more than a kilometre for fresh produce. "It is particularly problematic for residents without a car, have mobility problems or are elderly," said Maxwell Winchester, a member of Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council.

Daniel Kawczynski, the town's Tory MP, added: "The effects of these food deserts are so wide-ranging, from eating unhealthy processed foods, through to the environmental impact of travelling further afield to buy groceries, through to the negative impact on local farmers."