Ask the Researchers: The Retail Diversity for Dietary Diversity Project

A vegetable vendor in a wet market outside Hanoi. Photo: J.Hodur for A4NH

A4NH researchers at Managing Partners Bioversity International and Wageningen University & Research, along with partners Fresh Studio and Food Synetics, recently released findings and recommendations on the Retail Diversity for Dietary Diversity (RD4DD) project.

The project implemented a mixed-methods approach with a multi-disciplinary team of social and nutritional scientists, and aimed to understand how market access, shopping practices, diet transitions, and food safety concerns facing the urban poor in Hanoi have changed as the city's food environment undergoes rapid retail modernization. Jessica Raneri, Nutrition Research Specialist at Bioversity International and a co-PI of the RD4DD project, answered questions about the initiative and results obtained.

Q: What was the project about?

A: A study was conducted to assess consumer food access capabilities by linking Hanoi's food retail environment with food shopping practices, preferences, and dietary intake of 400 households in Hanoi, with a focus on women. Modernization policies aim to improve food safety by promoting closure of open-air wet markets in favor of supermarkets and convenience stories. Open-air markets are the main source of food and maintaining healthy diets, but don't offer formal food safety guarantees. modern retail outlets such as supermarkets and convenience stores provide foods with safety claims but are not being utilized by the urban poor because they are less convenient, there is a lack of trust in food safety, and food tends to be more expensive. Offering a wide assortment of ultra-processed foods, these modern outlets may also stimulate the consumption of these unhealthy foods and reinforce food access inequality. We wanted to understand how different strata of the urban poor shop and what their diet is like, based on their immediate food environment and in relation to food retail outlet availability.

Q: What problem did you see?

A: The urban poor have not changed their diets dramatically in response to shutting wet markets, at least not yet. They are not using the formalized modern outlets that are supposed to take the place of wet market shopping. Instead, most consumers are turning to informal vending outlets which likely pose even higher food safety risks than formal wet markets.

Pork is prepared for sale in a wet market outside Hanoi. Photo: J.Hodur/A4NH

Q: Who were you trying to reach?

A: The urban poor

Q: What particular challenges do they face?

A: Shopping happens almost daily for the urban poor, who often generate income day-by-day. As such, they are time-poor and cannot bulk buy in the way others do, like making weekly shopping trips. They also often are not able to reach supermarkets during opening hours and are used to the early operating hours and informality of wet markets.

Q: Why do people choose to shop at wet markets?

A: Shopping in wet markets is convenient. It’s also tradition, and the food is tastier. People have their trusted vendors who they can hold account for food safety issues, and they view the food as fresher and tastier.

Q: What is changing with the diets of the urban poor in Vietnam?

A: Diets have not yet changed too much despite the shutting down of wet markets because people are not yet frequently shopping in supermarkets. We did find ultra-processed foods in their diets, which were always purchased from modern retail outlets like supermarkets and convenience stores. However, they are still in the process of transitioning, and it is expected that, as the government cracks down further on the informal vendor trading currently filling the wet market gap, households will be further channeled into supermarkets as their main source of food – as such, ultra-processed foods are likely to increase in the diet. Also, children now hold more control over what a household prepares. Women are likely to succumb to children’s taste preferences in order to encourage them to eat, and unfortunately this is shifting away from healthy options such as home-made food and towards less healthy options like KFC.

Q: What surprised you in your findings?

A: We were expecting to see urban poor who did not have a wet market within the typical radius of food access using supermarkets as their main source of purchasing food. and that as a result, ultra-processed foods and diet quality overall would be worse among this group. However, households that did not have a wet market in their immediate vicinity had two coping mechanisms: 1) they travelled out of their way to access a wet market and 2) they turned to informal street vendors/markets.

Fish for sale in a wet market outside Hanoi. Photo: J.Hodur for A4NH

Q: What’s next for this work?

A: We would like to explore how this policy is affecting populations from different socioeconomic groups within Hanoi, as well as look how the diets of children specifically are changing. It would also be nice to see how this research may produce different results in the south of Vietnam and in other cities within the Southeast Asia region.

Q: What can others learn from it?

A: Hanoi is still undergoing the transition within the urban food environment, but poor consumers have not yet changed their diets dramatically as a result. As such, there is still time to mitigate negative effects on diet quality associated with supermarket shopping to further prevent the nutrition transition in Vietnam.


For further information about the project, contact Jessica E. Raneri at j.raneri@cgiar.org.

This research has been executed by the Retail Diversity for Dietary Diversity (RD4DD) project partnership of Fresh Studio, Bioversity International and Wageningen University. The research has been funded by the Drivers of Food Choice (DFC) Competitive Grants Programs [OPP1110043], which is funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and managed by the University of South Carolina, Arnold School of Public Health, USA; however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government's official policies.

Video shared from RD4DD with permission.