More than just a grocery store is needed to fight obesity

For those looking for a silver bullet to fight obesity, you will have to keep looking. A study released by the University of North Carolina found that among people living in “food deserts,” the availability of grocery stores does little to improve eating habits. “Food deserts” are considered geographic areas with easy access to fast food and few or no grocery stores.

The study found that in “food deserts”, there was an association between the availability of fast food and its consumption. However, there was little association found with the consumption of fruits and vegetables and living near a grocery store.

More specifically, the research found that among those living in low-income areas, there was a strong association between the availability of fast-food and how much of it was part of their diet. This association was particularly strong among men who lived within one to two miles of a fast food restaurant. However, there was little correlation between fast-food consumption and its availability among low-income women. The connection was weak among middle income people and inconsistent among those with higher income.

Nearly one million Californians live in “food deserts,” 46% of which are considered low-income.  “It’s not enough to say we will build it and people will come,” said lead researcher Penny Gordon-Larsen, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Public Health.

Moreover, the researchers felt that the study itself may shed little light on how the food environment impacts eating habits. The researchers stated that:

     “Overall, classification of food stores and restaurants into ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ according to mode of service (fast food or sit-down) or size (supermarket vs. grocery store) may provide little understanding of how the food environment impacts diet and may overlook innovative policy solutions.”

However, this research doesn’t mean that grocery stores are unimportant.  It only means that improving people’s eating habits is complicated.

In commenting on the study, Dr. Paul A. Simon from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that:

     “In many areas, supermarkets or grocery stores do not provide healthy food options. The effort to attract supermarkets to these so-called ‘food deserts’ is important, but it is not sufficient. There are lots of things that have to happen within the supermarket. For example, healthy foods need to be in prominent places, priced competitively and look attractive.”

There are, however, California legislators who believe a supermarket is an important place to start. California Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez has written AB 581, legislation that is looking to increase access to healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods and eliminate food deserts within seven years. AB 581 would use state, federal, philanthropic and private funds to establish the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative and bring grocery stores and healthy food retailers to underserved communities. The bill is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.