Report: Ubiquity of healthy food directly tied to obesity rates

July 18, 2013, City Beat

By Hannah McCartney

A report conducted by researchers at East Carolina University in North Carolina, released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sheds some interesting light on patterns in the availability of healthy food in different geographic regions and concludes that amping up corner stores that traditionally peddle junk food could be key in improving public health and national obesity rates.

The study focused heavily on the availability of healthy foods such as fresh produce in corner stores across the state in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The findings suggest that there are higher rates of obesity in rural areas of the United States than in urban or suburban areas, speculating that because rural residents tend to live farther from supermarkets, they may rely more on junk food from corner stores (like gas stations) or fast food. Where rural areas did have healthy food available, it tended to be of lower quality than other more populated areas.

People aren’t averse to healthy foods, according to the study. When researchers surveyed shoppers and management at rural corner stores, they found a dichotomy in the perception of demand for healthy foods between the two groups.

Store managers said they’d be interested in stocking healthy foods, but didn’t think there was a high enough demand to do so; shoppers told researchers they’d be likely to buy produce at a corner store and attributed the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets to the lack of accessibility at the stores they frequented.

Obesity as a result of poor access to healthy food is not just a rural phenomenon, however. Some urban neighborhoods, particularly those that are low-income, also suffer from alarmingly high obesity rates. Avondale, Ohio which is considered a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has long been dealing with a severe obesity problem, according to Avondale Community Council President Patricia Milton…

Obesity is a detrimental public health problem that costs the United States approximately $190 billion per year in health care expenses, according to a report from the Harvard School of Public Health. It’s directly associated with harmful health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and overall reductions in life spans.

According to the Harvard researchers, if obesity trends continue, obesity-related medical costs could rise by up to $66 billion by 2030.

University of Cincinnati professor Michael Widener told CityBeat in June about his research to analyze the way a number of different economic and social factors play into eating habits in different geographical regions, which could eventually help paint a better picture of how to establish strong and healthy networks of groceries and possibly improve obesity rates and public health.

The Center for Closing the Health Gap (CCHG), a local nonprofit working toward health equality, is currently working on identifying grocery stores which may be eligible to receive incentivizing funds from the Cincinnati Fresh Food Retail Financing Fund, which could bring grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods such as Avondale.

CCHG is also working on the pilot phases of its Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which could provide corner store owners with the education and technical assistance to start selling more healthful foods.

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