Food safety and nutrition for low-income urbanities: Exploring a social justice dilemma in consumption policy
This study (PDF) in the Environment and Urbanization journal investigates how retail policies driven by food safety impact the diets of the urban poor in Hanoi, Vietnam. Equitable access to healthy food is a critical challenge in urban Asia. Food safety governance promotes modern supermarkets over more traditional markets, but supermarkets are associated with unequal access to food. Food retail modernization is not (yet) utilized in the well-established shopping practices of low-income consumers in Hanoi. From both time–spatial and quality–affordability perspectives, supermarkets do not contribute to more healthy diets for low-income urbanites. Distance to supermarkets did not change shopping practices. Supermarket shopping is not only considered inconvenient and time consuming, but the safe foods offered are also considered expensive and less fresh. This study unpacks the competing priorities of nutrition and food safety in governing food security for low-income urbanites. Results confirm the effective direction of the dominant food safety-oriented retail modernization policies. However, the findings also demonstrate that low-income urbanites rarely frequent these modern retail channels, even when a supermarket is very close to their home. The struggle of low-income urbanites with food safety is a well-recognized problem in Vietnam and affects people throughout Asia. Although it is not contested that traditional markets are often less hygienic than supermarkets and lack adequate control mechanisms, this research demonstrates the limits to pushing modernization by banning traditional vending structures as a remedy for recurrent food safety incidents. It was demonstrated that these one-dimensional ideal-type policies have limited success in improving access to certified-safe foods among low-income residents, or for improving diet diversity. They fail to produce socially inclusive food retail infrastructure. When successful, the policies might jeopardize dietary quality for low-income urbanites through two pathways: depriving them of access to nutritious foods and stimulating less healthy diets by increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods. Thus, transforming the food environment without considering the food shopping practices, especially of low-income citizens, might result in unwanted outcomes in terms of dietary intake.