Healthy food access may not be panacea for obesity

April 19, 2012, 9:25 a.m.

A new study found that that neighborhoods thought to be food deserts, places with little access to eateries outside of fast-food establishments and convenience stores, in fact often have greater access to grocery stores than other communities do. (Credit: Gary H./Flickr Creative Commons)

It's a song that's sung about South L.A. all the time: Obesity is so rampant in large part because of the food environment and lack of healthy options.

Now two new studies are saying that's not necessarily true.

The first, by the RAND Corporation, appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine and concluded that there is "no robust relationship between food and environment." It added that any significant indicators the study found were "more likely to reflect chance than true relationships."

The study by RAND, a nonprofit think tank and research institution located in Santa Monica, looked at 8,226 children between five and 11 years old and 5,236 adolescents between 12 and 17 years old. It evaluated daily servings of fruits, vegetables, juice, milk, soda, high-sugar foods and fast food and analyzed them in conjunction with measures of the food environments: how many grocery stores were in the area, the density of eateries, how many types of a given restaurant were in a certain radius from a kid's home or school.

In addition to finding no relationship between the type of food participants said they ate and the type of food that was available in the area, there was also no evidence that there was a connection between the food environment and the participants' weight, according to the New York Times.

The second study, which was from the Public Policy Institute of California and appeared in Social Science & Medicine, found that children who live in "residentially poor and minority neighborhoods" are more likely to have greater access to fast-food outlets and convenience stores – but it also found that those same neighborhoods have greater access to other food establishments that haven't been tied to increased risk of obesity, like grocery stores.

The Times reports that the study is raising questions about the effectiveness of combating the obesity and diabetes epidemics with more healthy food options. L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who spearheaded the moratorium on new fast-food restaurants on the southside that began in 2008 and became permanent in 2010, said her focus was on bringing in more healthy eating establishments.

"I prefer to focus on trying to create options, bringing in more restaurants, bringing in more grocery stores," she told OnCentral in March. "We've got a long way to go. We still need more grocery stores and opportunities to buy healthy food."

Fighting South Los Angeles' chronic health problems requires a lot more than that, though – Perry later said the area needs more park space for exercise, and lack access to health care has been a perennial issue that exacerbates health conditions. Some experts say healthy food options won't do too much to ease that burden.

"It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores," Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the Times. "But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking."

A Department of Agriculture spokesman also told the Times that fighting obesity requires "a comprehensive response," and others added that response will need to account for the fact that "not all grocery stores are equal."

Photo by Gary H. via Flickr Creative Commons.

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