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Do residents of food deserts express different food buying preferences compared to residents of food oases? A mixed-methods analysis

Renee E Walker12*, Jason Block3 and Ichiro Kawachi4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Society, Human Development and Health, Harvard School of Public Health, 401 Park Drive, Room 445-C, Boston, MA, 02215, USA

2 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, Alumni House 327, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI, 53201-0413, USA

3 Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School, 133 Brookline Avenue, 3rd Floor, Boston, MA, 02215, USA

4 Department of Society, Human Development, and Health, Harvard University School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115, USA

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:41  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-41

Published: 10 April 2012



Many people lack access to food stores that provide healthful food. Neighborhoods with poor supermarket access have been characterized as “food deserts” (as contrast with “food oases”). This study explored factors influencing food buying practices among residents of food deserts versus food oases in the city of Boston, USA.


We used the mixed-methods approach of concept mapping, which allows participants to identify, list, and organize their perceptions according to importance. Resulting maps visually illustrate priority areas.


Sixty-seven low-income adults completed the concept mapping process that identified 163 unique statements (e.g. relating to affordability, taste, and convenience) that influence food buying practices. Multivariate statistical techniques grouped the 163 statements into 8 clusters or concepts. Results showed that average cluster ratings and rankings were similar between residents of food deserts and food oases.


The implication of this study pertains to the importance of community resources and emergency food assistance programs that have served to minimize the burden associated with hunger and poor food access among low-income, urban populations.

Food access; Food desert; Food oasis; Food buying practices; Concept mapping; Low-income