Earlier this month, Walmart trumpeted that it had beaten a goal it set five years ago: to open at least 275 stores in food deserts by 2016. That targeted expansion into "neighborhoods without access to fresh affordable groceries" came as part of the retailer's "healthier food initiative," lauded by — and launched with — First Lady Michelle Obama in 2011. Walmarts have been popping up in lower-income urban areas where grocery stores are scarce ever since.
But new research suggests that plugging food access holes with big box stores may not lead to healthier habits. According to a study just published online in the American Journal of Public Health, Americans' junk food calories increasingly come from big box stores rather than traditional grocers.
The share of calories from packaged food products purchased at mass merchandisers, convenience stores and warehouse clubs nearly doubled from 2000 to 2012, rising from 23 percent to 40 percent, according to an analysis of Nielsen Homescan data by University of North Carolina researchers. That increase was almost entirely driven by a loss in packaged food sales at grocery stores, whose share of those sales dropped from 69 to 51 percent over the same period. ("Packaged food products" here means processed and shelf-stable foods, including snacks, soda and desserts.)
What's more, the packaged foods people bought at big box and convenience stores were, on average, higher in sugar, sodium and saturated fat than those bought at traditional grocers, the researchers found.
The problem, says Dalia Stern, a researcher at the Carolina Population Center and lead author of the study, is that big box stories sell plenty of junk along with healthy options — and shoppers don't necessarily go for the latter.