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?

Posted on October 31, 2009, in Health, Neighborhoods, Transportation, Urbanism. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. After running into a MUCH tighter budget than I ever anticipated at school, I started buying food for its calorie-to-dollar ratio, rather than health. If a muffin costs the same as a banana, and is more filling, I know which one I’m going to eat for lunch.

    That said, I do live in an area at school in DC with fairly good access to a number of grocery stores. If I’m fortunate enough to be able to make these decisions, what’s happening to the people who are forced, out of economic geography, to purchase highly-processed food?

    Philly has a few programs to bring fresh produce into corner stores. Philly’s community gardens and urban farms are an incredible source for fresh produce in the low-income landscape. Community gardens may be one of the first steps to bottom-up change when it comes to food justice in low-income areas.

    As for “restaurant deserts,” doesn’t it have more to do with zoning and density?

    Philly’s “Corner Store Campaign” website:

  2. Ah, of course the Philly group is a part of a national Healthy Corner Store Network:

  3. Yes, restaurant deserts have everything to do with zoning and density. That is what I was trying to get at through the argument of adequate mixing of uses, though I obviously didn’t do a good job of it. Mixing uses only works with at least a moderate density and zoning that supports a variety of amenities and necessities that can be easily accessed by all forms of transportation, especially alternative forms. You are right on the money, Katie!

  4. In Brooklyn, it’s hard to walk far without passing a bodega – a small corner deli that sells basic grocery staples, bottled drinks, etc. I can run down the street to grab some spaghetti, or cat food, or band-aids, or an onion. There are also two farmers markets in my neighborhood. Last time I was on South Side Bethlehem, I noticed a number of churches had been boarded up. What happens to church buildings once they are no longer in use and no longer have congregations to sustain them? I’m sure that the city would prefer not to demolish those buildings. Maybe a project could be devised to repurpose some closed churches as neighborhood farmers’ markets or groceries.

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