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Few Healthy Options

Few Healthy Food Choices in Urban Food Deserts

Residents of urban food deserts, typically low income neighborhoods, have to deal with limited healthy food choices, in addition to perhaps more obvious disadvantages of life there. A food desert is generally defined as a location where residents have to travel twice as far to get to the nearest supermarket as their peers in wealthier parts of town. A number of recent studies provide data to support the assertion that these residents of food deserts face significant obstacles to the purchase and consumption of affordable healthy food.

Obesity and diet-related diseases are increasingly recognized as major public health problems. Research has suggested that some areas and households have easy access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores but limited access to supermarkets. Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food could be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases.

In a recent study to evaluate food access, availability, and affordability in 3 separate but similar low-income communities in urban Los Angeles, California, community members mapped the number and type of retail food outlets in a defined area, and then surveyed a sample of stores to determine whether they sold selected healthful foods and how much those foods cost. Of the 1,273 food establishments mapped in the 3 neighborhoods, the most common types of retail food outlets were fast-food restaurants (30 percent) and convenience/liquor/corner stores (22 percent). Supermarkets made up less than 2 percent of the total. Convenience/liquor/corner stores offered fewer than half of the selected healthful foods and sold healthful foods at higher prices than did supermarkets. The study understandably concluded that access to stores that sold affordable healthful food was a problem in urban Los Angeles communities.

The available data indicates that residents of these low income urban food deserts have less access to high quality produce, lean meat, and low fat dairy products. They necessarily rely on small markets that primarily sell foods with a long shelf-life, instead of fresh fruits, fresh produce, and low fat foods. These foods, when available, are also apparently more likely to be more contaminated and more expensive.

Food deserts are such important factors in rates of obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses, that communities must make access to healthy, affordably-priced groceries one of the cornerstones of any campaign or budget.

Healthy options can be hard to find in too many communities. Millions of low-income Americans live in ‘food deserts,’ neighborhoods that lack convenient access to affordable and healthy food. Instead of supermarkets or grocery stores, these communities often have an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. In addition, stores in low-income communities may stock fewer and lower quality healthy foods. When available, the cost of fresh foods in low-income areas can be high. Public transportation to supermarkets is often lacking, and long distances separate home and supermarkets in many rural communities and American Indian reservations. It is hard for residents of these areas–even those fully informed and motivated–to follow the necessary and recommended steps to maintain a healthy weight for themselves and their children. Too often, economic incentives strongly favor unhealthy eating, and accessibility, safety concerns, and convenience can also promote unhealthy outcomes.

Limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets and higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases. In addition, limited access to affordable food choices can lead to higher levels of food insecurity, increasing the number of low- and moderate-income families without access to enough food to sustain a healthy, active life. There is a growing, though incomplete, body of research that finds an association between food insecurity and obesity, suggesting that hunger and obesity may be two sides of the same coin.

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