Smart Food Access: The key to healthy weight
Since obesity prevalence is chiefly associated with both food and exercise, one of the key areas of research in obesity studies deals with the point at which those two variables intersect: the proximity of grocery stores and restaurants to neighborhoods. The most recent study on the subject has come out of my home department at the University of Utah. You can read about the study below:
This study is very interesting because of the distinction it makes between the needs of people with different income levels. It is extremely important for low-income neighborhoods to have easy and close access to grocery stores that offer healthy foods. The study shows 10% less obesity prevalence in low-income people who live in communities with easy access when compared to other low-income people who live in communities without access (called “food deserts”). At the same time, people with higher incomes may not need such easy access to grocery stores because they are more likely to be able to afford personal vehicles and would drive those vehicles to obtain groceries whether the stores are within walking distance or not. There does, however, seem to be a significant difference in obesity prevalence among higher-income people when considering walkable access to restaurants, even fast food restaurants. Without the need to carry bags of food home, as is necessary when walking from the grocery store, people with more disposable incomes are more likely to walk than drive to restaurants within a half-mile of their homes.
The results of this study could have a great influence on how we develop our three main cities in the Lehigh Valley. As a Bethlehem resident without access to a car, I distinctly understand the value of accessible food. I obtain most of my groceries from the Giant on Union and Pennsylvania, a good ¾ mile from my home; and I must walk it in the rain, snow (not yet, but soon!), or sunshine. This is challenging in the summer because of the heat and humidity, yet it is equally challenging as the weather turns cold. But I am not the only person in Bethlehem with an access problem. There are a noticeable lack of grocery stores in both the downtown North side and downtown South side of Bethlehem. There are what amount to corner stores here and there, but fresh produce literally does not exist in these lower-income areas. In general, the people of my neighborhood are of middle- or upper-incomes, and West Bethlehem is laid out in an urban pattern that would seem to promote walkability from home to restaurants and other destinations, yet no restaurants exist within a half-mile from where I live. This situation amounts to the requirement that, even in walkable West Bethlehem, residents must get in their cars for anything that they need.
This discussion is a good reminder that the design of our streets to promote safe and enjoyable walking is not effective when there is nothing worth walking to. Even in Bethlehem’s two mixed-use downtowns, the mix of uses is not adequate to create the kinds of healthy and active communities that we are aiming for. We must begin or (in the case of South Bethlehem) continue to consider how to bring food establishments to both low-income “food deserts” and high-income “restaurant deserts” (my term). Do you live in one of these “deserts?” What are your suggestions for improved access?