A team of Montana State University faculty members and graduate students has found that the quality of available produce at grocery stores is lower in rural areas compared to more urban areas.
As part of the study, Carmen Byker Shanks and Selena Ahmed, both assistant professors in the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development’s Department of Health and Human Development, along with Teresa Smith of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in Nebraska and several MSU graduate students, assessed availability, prices and quality of produce in 20 grocery stores across 17 towns in 12 Montana counties. The locations differed in terms of how rural they are considered to be, and the team randomly selected stores to be surveyed in each location.
The authors used what is called the Nutrition Environment Measurement Survey for Stores to assess the quality of fruits and vegetables. To follow these assessment standards, the researchers examined individual pieces of produce for signs of its condition. Those signs included color, cleanliness and the fruit or vegetable’s level of firmness, as well as evidence of bruising, shriveling, softening or mold.
The team found that while fruits and vegetables are as widely available and costly in rural stores as in urban stores, the quality of the produce is significantly lower in more rural areas, Ahmed said.
“The average quality score in the most rural grocery stores was 3.5 out of 6, while the least rural stores showed a quality score of 5.67 out of 6,” she said.
The findings may help explain why people living in rural areas to are less likely to consume the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, according to Byker Shanks, the study’s lead author.
“Rural populations consume fewer servings of produce on average than urban populations and face higher rates of obesity and diet-related chronic disease such as heart disease and diabetes,” Byker Shanks said. “Our team has been analyzing food environments in Montana to understand the factors driving this pattern, working towards improving public health through better nutrition.”
“Because the quality of fruits and vegetables available may impact produce purchasing and consumption, the rates of chronic disease may also be impacted by the quality of available produce,” Byker Shanks added.
“Low dietary intake of produce is ultimately linked to the prevalence of chronic disease,” Smith said.
“Just because fruits and vegetables are available and affordable at the market does not ensure that consumers will choose to purchase this produce or that it is of high quality,” Ahmed added.
The study’s findings suggest the need to develop strategies in rural areas targeted at improving produce quality in order to improve dietary and health outcomes, according to the research team. Possible strategies include developing food hubs, community gardens and improved food preservation techniques, both at the store and in people’s homes.
“There are tangible barriers that can be addressed through local solutions. We are looking forward to collaborating with communities to help decrease health disparities along the rural to urban continuum,” Byker Shanks said.
MSU graduate students involved with the study include Bailey Houghtaling, Mica Jenkins, Miranda Margetts, Daniel Schultz and Lacy Stephens. The study was funded by MSU’s Montana IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, which is in turn funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences division of the National Institutes of Health.
Byker Shanks and Ahmed both lead the Food and Health Laboratory at MSU, which researches links between agriculture, nutrition and health. Byker Shanks is head of the lab’s Behavioral Nutrition Research Group, while Ahmed heads its Agro-ecology and Phytochemistry Group.
Contact: Carmen Byker Shanks, (406) 994-1952 or email@example.com