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July 13, 2011

Obesity and nutrition: Food deserts might be less relevant than burger swamps

A grocery store alone won't make you much healthier.

A new study argues that access to grocers alone isn't enough to make people eat healthy. More relevant than grocer access or lack thereof -- the latter known as a "food desert" -- were proximity to quantities of what the industry likes to call "quick serve" restaurants. (My phrase of choice is "burger swamp.")

Income was also a big factor. From the Los Angeles Times:

Better access to supermarkets — long touted as a way to curb obesity in low-income neighborhoods — doesn't improve people's diets, according to new research. The study, which tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years, found that people didn't eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods.

Instead, income — and proximity to fast food restaurants — were the strongest factors in food choice.

The results, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, throw some cold water on the idea that lack of access to fresh produce and other healthful foods is a major driver in the disproportionate rates of obesity among the poor, or that simply encouraging grocery chains to open in deprived areas will fix the problem, said study lead author Barry Popkin, director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

For one thing, experts said, grocery stores are brimming with choices that are every bit as fattening as fast-food meals. For another, the prices of healthful grocery store foods are often higher than fast-food prices.

"This raises the serious issue of how we get people to eat healthy," Popkin said.

Read the full Times article here >>

Interestingly enough, this doesn't appear particularly restricted by culture. The lack of influence shown by grocery stores was evident in both a Latino community and a Scottish one.

Of course, one other option that uses more of a "push" approach is food delivery. I would imagine that services like the revived and, in many areas, CSA delivery services might be more effective in changing habits, since those services are significantly less passive.

Have you tried grocery delivery or CSA? If so, was this true for you?


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Posted by Patrick Maynard at 10:14 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Nutrition


Johns Hopkins U did a study on how poor urban people choose food a few years back by providing apples, oranges, and bananas to corner stores in Baltimore. The original cost for the fruit was 50 cents, same cost as a bag of Doritos that was also available near the checkout counter. No one bought the fruit. As part of the study, the price of the fruit was later lowered to 25 cents, half the cost of the bag of chips, and still no one bought the fruit. Then the price was lowered again, to free, and the person staffing the cash register offered a piece of fruit free with every purchase. No one took the fruit. Poor urban people grew up eating junk food, and that's what they know, so that's what they will choose when given a choice, regardless of the incentive of other available food for free. Food stamps pays for junk food, so there's no disincentive. Also to be considered is what is culturally accepted in urban ghettoes, and it ain't fruit. It's Doritos. You could put a Whole Foods on North Avenue, discount the prices, and the vast majority of Baltimore's indigent will not shop there.

I've used delivery from Safeway for years and I really like it (since I don't drive, it's cheaper to have the food delivered than to take a taxi home from the store).
While I do miss out on in store specials, the fact that I can see a running total of my purchases and don't see the in store impulse options means that my grocery bill is lower and the choices are better for me.
But, I don't buy fruit or meat that way. Those come from the farmer's market.

I have a CSA share, but I'm not tempted by fast food to begin with, nor are most of my friends with CSA shares.

More fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets doesn´t mean a change in food patterns of people. If you´re not used to eat ist- you will not buy ´em!

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About Exercists
Andrea Siegel, a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, covers mostly crime and courts in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, as well as legal issues. She wishes she was more physically fit, and, as she's more fond of chocolate than exercise, fitness is a challenge. Her partner on a one-mile-plus daily walk is the family dog, a mixed breed named Moxie, and she exercises at the gym where the D.C. snipers once worked out.
Jerry Jackson has been a photo editor at The Baltimore Sun for 14 years and an avid cyclist for more than 30 years. Inspired by the movie "Breaking Away," he started racing as a teenager in Mississippi when leather "brain baskets" were still the norm. He regularly commutes to work by bike and still enters several mountain bike races a year for fun.
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Patrick Maynard, who will be writing about running and walking, has been a producer for since 2008. In 2009, he tweeted on-course for the Sun from the Baltimore Marathon, finishing in just under 4 hours and almost managing to run the whole time. He sometimes walks to the Sun offices on Calvert Street.
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Leeann Adams, a multimedia editor at The Baltimore Sun, also dabbles in content for the mobile website and iPhone app and covers the Ravens via video. She did a triathlon to celebrate her 40th birthday and continues to swim, bike and run -- none of them quickly, though. Her biggest fitness challenge is to balance working, working out, spending time with her husband and being a mom to a 6-year-old boy.
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Anica Butler, the Sun's crime editor, is a former high school runner and recovering vegetarian who spent more of her early-adult years on a bar stool than working out. She is currently training (though poorly) for a half marathon and is trying to live a generally healthier lifestyle. She also hates the gym.
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