Tuesday, July 19, 2011

9032: Food Deserts Need Marketing Too.

From The Chicago Sun-Times…

Food deserts need more than groceries.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that adding a super­market or two in a poor neighborhood that has long gone without doesn’t radically alter the eating habits of folks who live in those communities.

That’s the finding of a new study of several cities, including Chicago. Over 15 years, researchers looked at the impact of greater supermarket availability and found no real difference in the quality of people’s diets or how often they ate fruits and vegetables.

But that doesn’t mean Chicago and other cities should walk away from their food deserts, as we call large and isolated areas that lack a grocery store.

Chicago should instead redouble its efforts to eradicate food deserts — as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to do — and help make it easier and more economical for Chicagoans to choose healthy food.

Food deserts, it turns out, are killing us. In Chicago, the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting group found that food desert residents are more likely to die or suffer prematurely from diet-related diseases, most notably diabetes.

But the answer is not simply to plop down a lone grocery store amid a sea of junk-food options.

“It’s simplistic thinking that if you put fruits and vegetables there, they’ll buy it,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the senior author of the new study, published last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. “You have to encourage it, you need advertising, you need support. It’s working with supermarkets to market healthy food rather than junk food.”

It’s important to note that other studies have found a positive correlation between access to grocery stores and good health. A 2006 Chicago study by Gallagher, who has long worked on the food desert issue, found obesity goes down as distance to mainstream grocers is reduced. Another study in 2005 found the greatest improvement in the consumption of fruits and vegetables among shoppers who adopted a new supermarket as their main food store.

But everyone knows it’s hard for a single grocery store to compete with a slew of fast-food restaurants, corner stores and gas stations selling junk food.

Not surprisingly, Popkin’s research found a strong correlation between fast-food consumption and fast-food availability for low-income men.

We’re not comfortable limiting the number of fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods or overly restricting what people on food stamps can buy. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean the government should dictate what you eat.

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