Layperson's Summary


Accessing Healthy Food: A National Assessment and Sentinel Mapping Study of Food Retailing in Scotland




People in Scotland live and shop under a wide range of different circumstances. These can vary from highly populated urban environments in major towns and cities to remote rural and island communities. The provision of food for consumption at home also varies tremendously. Suburban car users living in central Scotland may have several large supermarkets to choose from within a 30 minute drive of their homes, as well as numerous smaller specialist food shops. In comparison a resident of the Highlands and Islands may have to travel for one to two hours or more to obtain more than the bare minimum of food to choose from. Non-car users living in some more-deprived urban areas may also struggle to access a reasonable range of food items, especially those that can be considered to be healthier food.

The idea that people may have poor access to food, so-called “food deserts” has been of importance to social health researchers since the mid 1990s. However in Scotland there have been only a few studies of food access in particular local urban and rural environments which have produced few firm conclusions. There is very little evidence of systematic differences in food retailing, price and availability at the national level.

National Assessment

In 2003 the Food Standards Agency Scotland (FSAS) published its Diet and Nutrition Strategy to highlight its role in implementing the Scottish Diet Action Plan. Of major importance was how FSAS wished to improve food access in Scotland and in particular to increase access to healthier food choices, particularly in low income and rural areas.

To assist in this the Centre for the Study of Retailing in Scotland (CSRS) is conducting a major research project to provide a comprehensive and scientifically valid national assessment of access to healthy food in Scotland . Previous research studies will guide the proposed project but their approach and instruments will need to be adjusted to make them relevant to the Scottish situation, e.g. recognition of urban multi-storey living; wide variation of scales from urban to rural and island; a diverse range of retail providers and transport mechanisms. The research is focused on physical access to healthy food and whilst there are many other influences on a healthy diet, for example culture and cooking skills, these other influences will not be considered directly in this project. Previous research on these topics will inform the current research and will provide useful complementary knowledge.

This project will provide robust evidence that will inform policy decision-making and identify the types of area that have particular access problems. It will provide a national map of food retailing and describe how availability, access and price vary using local case study sites. These sites will be known as sentinels. The sentinels will be chosen to be nationally representative but will be focused on more deprived areas. The project is designed so that, if the need exists, it can be used as the basis for an ongoing surveillance system of food access in Scotland .

Healthy Baskets

To enable a nationwide comparison of healthy food availability and prices, a standard set, or basket, of products must be compared. These products will be chosen to represent healthy food across the range of different food groups, e.g. cereals, dairy, fish, fruit, meat, vegetables, etc. The basket will be designed to take account of local tastes and will avoid being overly prescriptive. Using these baskets access to and prices of healthy food will be surveyed.

Surveying Retail Providers and Transport Mechanisms

Within sentinels the range of different means of buying food will be surveyed. This will take account of whether people walk, or use a bus or car or other transport to buy food and also what type of food retailer is available. The food retail mechanisms surveyed will be extensive and will include, but not be limited to, supermarkets, convenience stores, specialist food shops, delivery vans, box schemes, and farmers markets.


The work programme is based at the University of Edinburgh (lead contractor), and involves the University of Stirling , Queen Mary – University of London and the University of Dundee . It will be managed and delivered by the Centre for the Study of Retailing in Scotland (CSRS). CSRS is an independent, SHEFC funded organisation established in 2002 to provide a resource to support and develop research on retailing in Scotland .

The research is an ambitious programme of work providing considerably greater understanding of access to healthy food across Scotland . The research will make recommendations for further research avenues of value to FSAS.

Final Report

Click link to access final report, published February 2008