Potential and realized food environments: an application of the social cognitive theory in Alabama food deserts

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University of Alabama Libraries

Evidence from the United States (US) suggests that low-income, racial/ethnic minority, and rural populations often live in food deserts - areas underserved by grocery stores. Food deserts increase risk for diet-related disease among already at-risk populations; however, food access research has often included limited types of food outlets and has made assumptions about individual food procurement patterns. Framed by the Social Cognitive Theory, this mixed methods study was conducted in two phases in order to investigate Greene County, Alabama food retailers (potential environment) and assess residents' food access patterns (realized environment). In Phase One, all county food retailers were identified and classified in order to describe variances in distribution between the two census tracts considered a food desert (FDT) by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the non-food desert tract (NFDT). USDA designations were confirmed, meaning FDT did not have grocery stores. However, the NFDT contained more of almost every store type, contrasting research suggesting increased presence of other retailers, such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants, in the absence of grocery stores. In Phase Two, semi-structured interviews were conducted in order to describe household food procurement patterns of 30 Greene County Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) participants, highlighting differences based on whether or not participants lived in a food desert. Patterns identified did not vary significantly based on residential area. Participants were utilizing 59% of county stores, identifying NFDT grocers and dollar stores as more important to meeting household food needs than FDT outlets. However, 53% of participants were leaving the county to do the bulk of their food shopping, using local stores to top off monthly food supply. Participants used a variety of shopping strategies, encountering a range of monetary and opportunity costs. Though not assessed directly, perception of Greene County stores was generally poor. Results demonstrate the value of using USDA food desert designations with in-depth exploration of potential food environments to best describe area foodscapes. Additionally, resident-informed data describing realized food environments can support research about residential attitudes and perceptions to inform food desert solutions.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
Health education, Nutrition