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Abstract

Public policy discussion of the problem of food deserts has concentrated on proximity to retail food stores providing nutritious, affordable foods. Because they offer a wide array of healthful products at lower prices, physical access to a supermarket or supercenter has come to be the standard of adequacy. Less attention has been given to how economic incentives influence access to retail food stores in the wider food environment. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enacted a sizable increase in SNAP benefits effective April 2009. Though the primary purpose of the increase was to stimulate the economy, we argue that it had a secondary effect of encouraging SNAP participants to redeem more of their benefits at larger, lower-priced retailers. To investigate the effect of this policy change, we use county-level, administrative data on SNAP redemptions at different types of authorized food stores from May 2007 to May 2010. Data from the Economic Research Service’s Food Desert Locator are used to classify counties according to the percent of their population residing in food deserts. Results show that the SNAP benefit increase is associated with a greater percentage of redemptions at superstores. Estimates are stable across a number of specifications that also control for gas prices and store-type density. Within our sample of counties, we show that an $80 maximum SNAP benefit increased the percentage of benefits redeemed at supermarkets by 1.4 percentage points. In order to achieve a similar increase in redemptions at superstores, store density would have to increase from one superstore every 24 square miles to 1 superstore every 15 square miles. Impacts of the benefit increase were positive, but somewhat smaller in areas with more of their population residing in food deserts.

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