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Philadelphia Gets Access to Healthy Food, But Will It Do Any Good?

  • by
  • June 21, 2012
  • 10:30 am
Philadelphia Gets Access to Healthy Food, But Will It Do Any Good?

Of America’s largest cities, Philadelphia has the highest rates of obesity and poverty, but it’s working hard to change that. For one thing, as Sarah Kliff writes on The Washington Post blog, the city has invested substantial resources in making healthy foods more accessible to its low-income communities and could well be considered “the epicenter of American efforts to improve food access.”

Drawing on millions of dollars in funding and working with The Food Trust, a nonprofit group based in the city, Philadelphia is bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to 632 of its 2,500 corner stores as part of its Get Healthy Philly initiative. Some experts, however, are beginning to wonder if such efforts will make any difference in these communities known as “food deserts.”

A food desert, as defined in the 2008 Farm Bill, is an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” Conventional wisdom has held that greater access to affordable, nutritious foods leads to better health outcomes, but this has yet to be supported by evidence. “Multiple studies have scoured local, state and national data looking for a causal relationship between weight and access to healthy food,” Kliff reports. “None has found it.”

“That’s where Philadelphia comes in,” writes Kliff. “Along with building the country’s largest network of healthy corner stores, the city is conducting the largest study to date” of shopping habits in neighborhoods before and after healthy foods are introduced. Will the people in these neighborhoods show a reduced rate of obesity and diet-related diseases once healthy foods become more accessible to them? Not necessarily.

In a New York Times opinion piece, author David Bornstein outlines other key factors that influence what people buy and eat, including cost of food, convenience with regard to storing and preparing food, and a taste for processed foods.

Even when grocery stores are within walking distance, Bornstein writes, people in low-income communities will drive to big box stores to do their shopping, where non-perishable items can be purchased in bulk at low cost. “Researchers have found that energy-dense foods (those that contain the most calories per gram, which is to say sweets and starchy foods) are far less expensive than low-energy and nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables,” reports Bornstein. “In fact, measured on a per-calorie basis, they are one tenth the price.” (Many experts argue that this discrepancy in cost can be corrected with the right revisions to misguided agricultural policies.)

Another obstacle is that people just crave the taste of processed food. “Being poor or near poor in the United States means being exposed to a million luxuries that are beyond your reach,” writes Bornstein. “Even simple things most Americans take for granted — like taking the kids to a movie — are unaffordable. But a tasty meal is not. Junk foods that combine fat, salt and sugar in proportions that make them highly desirable, maybe even addictive — foods that hit the so-called ‘bliss point’ — are never too expensive or far from reach.”

Part of the solution is education. Education about the benefits of eating nutritious foods, education about the risks to health from eating processed foods, education on storing and preparing foods that are good for you, but access to healthy foods remains a key part of the solution as well. To address a problem as complex as obesity and its related diseases, the solution has to be multifaceted, and so in addition to increasing access to healthy foods that its low-income residents can afford, Philadelphia is also working to eliminate junk food from schools and encourage people to walk and bike through major transit corridors.

“Research hasn’t caught up with all the interventions, because collecting evidence and evaluating it takes time,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen A. Merrigan said. “That’s why we’re excited about efforts like the one that they’re undertaking in Philadelphia.” Here’s hoping Philly comes out a winner.

Related Stories:

Food Justice is Racial Justice

New Study Says “Food Deserts” Only Part of the Problem

Food Deserts? Is That A Typo?

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28 comments

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4:14PM PST on Dec 2, 2012

thanks

8:36PM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

thanks for the post

11:58AM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

One thing that has been tried in New York City on a demonstration basis is letting people on food stamps double the value if they buy fresh fruits and vegetables. This program can and should be expanded. We should also promote the use of green bags which are bags treated with potassium permanganate which keep vegetables much fresher for longer periods of time because they absorb the gas that comes off of aging vegetables. If more people buy fresh foods it will be worthwhile for corner groceries to buy coolers and stock them. The retailer will respond to the demand/

11:39PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Will it do any good? Maybe for a few people who change their eating habits. But most won't.

4:32PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Yo! Bill E. ! Ya talkin' to me ?

Ever been to Rizzo's ? It was a favorite of Larry Kane's back in the day.

4:09PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

hmmm...

10:32AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

When my husband had his heart attack the need for fresh food went up but the ability to buy them went WAY down. He was retired, had an out of home business but could no longer do the work. With my bad health and his heart attack along with mounting doctor bills we found ourselves eating more and more processed foods. For awhile the three minute noodles kept us from starving. White rice (one cup) and stewed tomatoes (two small cans) cooked together has fed us for two days. The last thing we have not cancelled is the internet and that is only because he does some work on people’s computers so we do not lose everything we own. You can judge people all you want to but until you have walked in their shoes, you are just being hateful and hypocritical. We live off one SS check and here in Florida that is too much to receive food stamps, gotta love those Republicans, NOT.

10:07AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Philly has the worlds best hoagies and Cheese steak sandwiches. Are you trying to tell me that they aren't healthy? Horrors!

8:59AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Eating well is not really about fruit and veggies at every corner store, though it is a really good idea. Eating well is about having money for food, having the knowledge of how to prepare/store it and having the experience of enjoying tasty wholesome food.

I am no longer surprised to find kids who don't eat fruit/veggies but it still amazes me that there are lots of adults who will not eat anything that looks like a vegetable, unless it is french fried. There are a lot of people with lack of access to healthy food, but likely even more who have access and won't eat vegetables or have no idea how to cook them. Educate the kids about healthy eating in the schools and they will teach the parents, I've watched it happen and it is beautiful.

8:40AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Love you post Gayle. I find it hilarious how many people assume that farmer's markets are just everywhere. Sorry, but a little town in Podunk, Georgia or Tennessee is not the same thing as Seattle or San Franciso.

And let's not even get into things like costs of fresh food vs processed, or that glorious ablity of foods in the South to rot and get mold within a day or two. I guess we need better fungicide put on the fruits, but foodies purists would have a conniption fit about that (not entirely without reason, I might add).

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