Much attention has been given to this week’s New York Times article, “Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity,” which reviewed two new studies that did not find a relationship between the food outlets in neighborhoods and obesity rates among youth. Yet over the past 20 years — with more than 130 studies under their belt — most researchers have found that people who live in neighborhoods with better access to healthy food also have better nutrition and better health.
In 21st century America, more than 23 million people lack adequate access to fresh, healthy food choices according to the US Department of Agriculture. Finding healthy food can mean multiple bus rides carting groceries and children. The same communities without supermarkets and grocery stores often have blocks and blocks of fast food, liquor, and convenience stores selling unhealthy, high-fat, high-sugar foods. The lack of healthy food retailers is a double whammy for poor neighborhoods since these neighborhoods also miss out on the jobs and economic activity that grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and produce stands can bring.
The majority of research shows a clear relationship between healthy food access, diet, and obesity. Another new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that was not cited in the New York Times article, finds that neighborhood access to healthy food and safe places for physical activity does matter for children’s weight. The study finds that children living in neighborhoods with healthy food and safe play spaces are 56% less likely to be obese than children in neighborhoods without these features . Other reputable studies have found that African Americans are more likely to meet dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables when they live in a census tract with a supermarket; and for every additional supermarket in a tract, produce consumption increases 32 percent. In addition, a 2008 California study found obesity rates are 20 percent higher in low-income areas with high densities of fast-food and convenience stores compared to low-income areas with lower densities of outlets selling primarily unhealthy foods.
The two studies highlighted have limitations — as acknowledged by the study authors. Dr. Lee’s research, for example, is based on a very small, non-geographically representative sample that cannot explain the disproportionate obesity rates for “at-risk” children. We simply can’t draw conclusions about what strategies will work to reduce obesity rates for the many low-income children living without access to healthy food based on this one study. Providing access to healthy food does more than enrich diet and health. Grocery stores revitalize distressed neighborhoods by creating jobs and bringing in more tax revenues. A Pennsylvania program developed in 2004, and continuing today, has developed or retained 88 grocery stores of other food markets and created more than 5,000 jobs — while improving access to healthy food for over 400,000 residents.
Every community, regardless of income, race, and geography should have ready access to high-quality, healthy food, and be able to benefit from the economic opportunities spurred by new food retail. Improving the availability of healthy food in underserved areas must be a core component of any comprehensive strategy aimed at combating America’s obesity crisis. Only then can we effectively strengthen the health of our communities, children, and families now and for generations to come.
We encourage you to join us in the comments section below to keep the conversation going and share your own stories about accessing healthy food in your community. Also, see noted researcher Mari Gallagher’s thoughtful response to Times article here.