Study calls for improved access to low- and non-fat milk in low-income and non-white communities

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Study Improve access to low-fat skim milk in low-income nonwhite areas

Related tags Milk Nutrition

Milk manufacturers need to work more closely with retailers in low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods to adequately stock and encourage consumption of skim and low-fat options, argue the authors of a new study. 

“We’re not doing enough to ensure that people – especially those in underserved communities – have access to healthier and affordable milk options. The healthy choice needs to be the easy choice for families and children no matter where they live,”​ Leah Rimkus, deputy director of the Bridging the Gap Program at the Institute for Health Research and Policy, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Her assessment is based on observational research she and others conducted at nearly 9,000 stores in more than 450 communities nationwide that revealed less than half of all stores carried 1% or skim milk, while three-quarters of stores carried whole or 2% milk.

The odds of a store carrying any type of milk, let alone low-fat or skim, fell even more in nonwhite or low-income neighborhoods, according to the study, which was published online June 2 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics​. 

Specifically, the study found “the odds of carrying any of the four milk types were 31% to 67% lower in majority black and 26% to 45% lower in other/mixed race communities compared to majority white communities. The odds of carrying low-fat (but not higher-fat) milks were 50% to 58% lower in majority Hispanic compared to with majority white communities and 32% to 44% lower in low-income compared to high-income communities.”

In addition, the price of the low-fat milk cost significantly more on average in low- and medium-income communities than in higher-income communities in grocery stores, but not supermarkets, which have more check-out lanes, or limited-service stores. Skim and low-fat milk also cost more in grocery stores in mostly black neighborhoods compared to white ones, according to the study.

“From a public health perspective, another interesting finding from our study was that 1% fat milk was much less available than skim,” ​ which is important because “if skim milk is the only low-fat option available, people may be less likely to make a healthier choice,”​ said Rimkus, who noted federal dietary guidelines recommend choosing low-fat and non-fat dairy products.

“These findings indicate that it’s more challenging and more expensive for populations at high-risk of obesity and other diet-related health problems to follow dietary guidelines, at least with respect to milk,”​ Rimkus added.

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The study did not explore why lower income, nonwhite neighborhoods were less likely to carry non- or low-fat milk, but given that more stores carried full fat milk, the disparity could be due to inadequate refrigeration space to stock multiple types of milk, Rimkus suggested.

The study also suggested: “Storeowners in some areas might not carry low-fat milk because they do not see a market for it and may perceive it as risky to use limited shelf-space for a perishable product that will not sell.”

Manufacturers and suppliers could help retailers overcome this hurdle and other infrastructure needs by offering retailers incentives to carry non- or low-fat milk and to make them more attractive through placement, promotional signs and price breaks.

In addition, manufacturers and distributors should consider sampling non- and low-fat milk in stores and provide consumer education about their health benefits to drive awareness and initial trial, the study said. If retailers see increased demand by consumers, they likely will stock more low- and non-fat options.

Local government efforts, such as the Healthy Bodega Initiative in New York City, to help limited-offering stores provide healthier options also could ease the disparity, the study suggested.

Likewise, local government efforts to encourage the creation of new, full-service supermarkets also could help since the study found prices and availability of non- or low-fat milk was better at supermarkets than other retailer types, the researchers recommended. 

Related topics R&D Fresh Milk

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