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BPR Interviews: Jessie Handbury

Jessie Handbury is Assistant Professor of Real Estate at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, NBER Research Fellow, and Penn UIR Faculty Fellow. Professor Handbury’s work has been quoted in publications such as the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently researching the influence of income on food deserts in America.  

Differences in food access only explain 10 percent of disparities in consumption across education groups. If the barrier isn’t access, then what is it?

Jessie Handbury: If you put a college educated and non-college educated person in a market, they’re going to buy vastly different food products. So even though they have the same choices, they’re going to buy different things. There are a whole lot of reasons why that may be the case. It could be earning different pay, budget constraints, the willingness to pay driven by different foods, education, different tastes to healthy foods, kitchen size, or time to prepare healthy food – there is a whole lot of other stuff going on. The key thing in our research is to say that whatever is going on is not going to be fixed by just building a new market. If you get rid of food deserts, that’s going to equalize the choices for different kinds of households, but it’s not going very far to equalize what they are purchasing. There could be some arguments about long term exposure to healthy foods; if they see fruits and vegetables again and again, maybe they will start buying.

Can farmers’ markets or urban agriculture resolve the issue of new markets not aligning with the food culture of the community?

I don’t know why a food market selling healthy foods wouldn’t also appeal to the food culture of the residents. However, it could make a difference; maybe food market chains haven’t identified that there are different food cultures and they could profitably sell more healthy foods to certain populations by displaying them in a different way. That’s also saying you need to offer foods properly in order to get business. The concern people have with food deserts is that low income people aren’t getting the same food quality; they want low income people to have the same opportunities to eat healthy foods. Thinking about how to display foods would suggest a different approach to managing the issue of food deserts.

How does the “Whole Foods effect”—a supermarket-driven form of gentrification—affect the future of food deserts?

JH: That’s not a food thing; that’s about gentrification in general. I don’t think Whole Foods makes any claims to be affordable. I think what’s really happening there is Whole Foods is moving into a new neighborhood not with the goal to resolve the problem of food deserts, but to serve the influx of college educated, wealthy households, whom they predict will gentrify the surrounding neighborhoods. That in itself has an impact on the low-income households. The fact that low-income households have access to Whole Foods doesn’t go very far in compensating them for the fact that their rents are going up and they might have to move. Moreover, not only have the housing costs have gone up, but maybe the costs of groceries have gone up as well because the Whole Foods has displaced a more feasibly priced store, even if it wasn’t offering healthy foods.