Low-income areas in which residents have poor access to healthy foods have been referred to as “food deserts.” It is thought that improving food access may help curb the obesity epidemic. Little is known about where residents of food deserts shop and if shopping habits are associated with body mass index (BMI). We evaluated the association of food shopping and acquisition (e.g., obtaining food from church, food pantries, etc.) with BMI among 459 residents of low-income communities from two South Carolina counties, 81% of whom lived in United States Department of Agriculture-designated food deserts. Participants were interviewed about food shopping and acquisition and perceptions of their food environment, and weight and height were measured. Distances to food retail outlets were determined. Multivariable linear regression analysis was employed. Our study sample comprising largely African-American women had an average BMI of 32.5 kg/m2
. The vast majority of study participants shopped at supermarkets (61%) or supercenters/warehouse clubs (27%). Shopping at a supercenter or warehouse club as one’s primary store was significantly associated with a 2.6 kg/m2
higher BMI compared to shopping at a supermarket, independent of demographics, socioeconomics, physical activity, and all other food shopping/acquisition behaviors. Persons who reported shopping at a small grocery store or a convenience or dollar store as their tertiary store had a 2.6 kg/m2
lower BMI. Respondents who perceived lack of access to adequate food shopping in their neighborhoods as a problem had higher BMI. Living in a food desert census tract was not significantly associated with BMI. Other shopping attributes, including distance to utilized and nearest grocery stores, were not independently associated with BMI. These findings call into question the idea that poor spatial access to grocery stores is a key underlying factor affecting the obesity epidemic. Future research should consider assessing foods purchased and dietary intake within a comprehensive study of food shopping behaviors and health outcomes among persons living in food deserts.
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