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Prevention Institute

April 25, 2012

The Food Desert Debate: Media Round-up

You’ve probably seen the headlines by now. Last week, the New York Times published “Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity,” sparking a public dialogue in the media on food access and its relation to health. The piece highlighted two recent studies, taking the results at face value to paint this oversimplified picture: “[Poor urban] neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.”

The article missed the mark by dismissing two decades worth of peer-reviewed research that has established a link between food access and health; overlooking the design limitations of the studies cited; and failing to acknowledge additional barriers that impact people’s purchasing and consumption of healthy foods, including affordability, quality, and access to reliable transportation. Yet this one-sided account gave advocates, researchers, and community members an opportunity to balance the equation with engaging responses of their own.

Here’s a round-up of some of the stories:

  • Chicago-based researcher Mari Gallagher, whose work popularized the term “food desert,” wrote a thorough response, dismantling each of the faulty premises put forth in the New York Times article. “Ms. Kolata’s article unfairly suggests that community leaders, policy makers, Mrs. Obama, and so many others want to ‘combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods,’” Gallagher states. “To my knowledge, no one of any credibility has ever suggested that access was the entire solution or that anything involving the complicated relationship between diet and health is simple.”
  • Berkeley Media Studies Group raised a critical point about the studies cited in the Times: “Both studies can be true and still miss an essential point about how our food system perpetuates inequity because neither critically engages the term ‘access.’ Even if many low-income residents live within ‘a couple of miles’ of a grocery store, the food may not be affordable. And getting to that store may be much more difficult and time-consuming than getting to a nearby fast food restaurant or corner store.
  • A recent piece in PolicyMic highlights the critical impact of pervasive food marketing on our health: “Indeed, obesity and poverty are inextricably linked, but not because of minimal access to healthy options at grocery stores; rather, a culture that is overexposed to the marketing of junk food and the dismissal of nutrition education as the true culprit.”
  • The New York Times published several letters to the editor from readers attempting to widen the narrow frame presented in the original article. One reader shed light on food access as more than just an issue of health, but also an issue of equity and fairness, when he wrote “Focusing on the absence of supermarkets also detracts from the substantial racial, social and economic inequality at the root of disparate retail environments, making it harder to advocate for substantive policies that create lasting and equitable solutions.”

Here are talking points to continue to broaden the frame and discussion on food access, health and equity:

  • Creating equitable, healthy food environments is a complex issue, and requires a comprehensive solution. A grocery store that is “only” a mile away is of little use when a family does not have access to safe, reliable transportation to get there; or when the healthy food available is not affordable or of poor quality. Establishing healthy food retail in all neighborhoods is a critical step, but it is only one piece of a broader strategy.
  • Two decades of public health data affirm that access to fresh, healthy food retail impacts eating behavior and, in turn, health. From a recent comprehensive review that found residents who have access to supermarkets tend to have healthier diets to a study indicating chronic disease rates are up to 20% higher among those living in the least healthy food environments, the research is clear: food environments matter.
  • The ubiquity of fast food and junk food is an equally important factor when it comes to food access. A New Orleans study found that predominantly black neighborhoods had 60% more fast food restaurants per square mile than predominantly white neighborhoods. And a study among middle and high school students in California found that students with nearby fast food restaurants consumed fewer servings of fruits and vegetables and more servings of soda.
  • Residents of all communities deserve access to healthy, affordable food retail. Affordable, quality nutritious foods isn’t a luxury or amenity, it’s a basic right. Yet nationwide research has consistently shown that those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas face greater challenges in finding healthy food. Communities facing the greatest risk for poor health outcomes are the same communities that have the deck stacked against them when it comes to healthy food access.

What you can do:

  • Respond to news coverage you come across with a letter to the editor, op-ed, or online comment on how food environments impact health (and don’t forget to share it with us, too). Looking for local examples to highlight? Browse Communities Taking Action to see efforts underway in your community.
  • Visit our Rapid Response page online for more of the latest research and talking points linking food environments to health.
  • Stand up for healthful food by signing on to Setting the Record Straight, our declaration calling for a just, and healthy food system.
  • Learn more about how junk food marketing affects health: Watch and share We’re Not Buying It, a 3-minute video on the role the food industry has in shaping our food environment.
  • Connect with Strategic Alliance on Twitter (@Strat_Alliance) - we’ll be tweeting research, talking points, and community stories that help make the case for equitable healthful food access.

Save the Date: ENACT Day 2012

Join Strategic Alliance on May 16, 2012 for ENACT Nutrition and Activity Day, an annual grassroots advocacy day held in Sacramento, CA. ENACT Day brings advocates together to educate policymakers about opportunities to improve California’s food and physical activity environments. Don’t miss this dynamic and informative opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate with legislators, meet with your representatives, and network with leaders and advocates from across the state. Spanish interpretation will be provided, and a limited number of travel scholarships will be awarded. Click here to learn more and register today!

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