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.
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