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Creating Oasis amidst Food Deserts: Strategies for Childhood Obesity Prevention

Creating Oasis amidst Food Deserts: Strategies for Childhood Obesity Prevention

Dr. Ayoob's Words of Wisdom
"They eat what they help to grow and what they help prepare. With so many issues, solutions usually start at home. Help kids get involved by having them look for healthy recipes they'd like to eat, then figuring out the ingredients they'll need to make them," Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob.
Related Articles
It Takes More than Fresh Food to Reign in Childhood Obesity
"It's not just about fresh produce," said Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic, at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center and associate clinical professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
The School Front of the Obesity Epidemic
We all want kids to eat healthy, but, what does that mean?
By Jorge E. Bañales

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels among minorities in the United States; and communities are addressing the lack of fresh food choices in their neighborhoods -- areas that have become known as "food deserts" -- in order to overcome one of the obstacles to a healthy diet, and better educate kids about food.

"Food deserts are an important issue for obesity prevention," said Steve Kelder, co-director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at The University of Texas School of Public Health. "It doesn't make any sense to advise children or adults to eat healthy food when there isn't any available in their neighborhood."

Research shows that where children live, what they eat and the opportunities they have for healthy activities are major predictors of their mental and physical wellbeing as they grow. Ailments that used to mainly afflict adults are now seen in children. Diabetes, extreme weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are traced back to food consumption and lack of physical activity.

"When convenience store food is all you have access to, you are going to eat it," Kelder said. "Unfortunately, many inner city and rural areas do not have grocery outlets where healthy food can be found. Even worse, food deserts are often found in low-income neighborhoods, where easy transportation to grocery outlets just isn't available. The child obesity epidemic won't be solved in these neighborhoods until healthy food equity can be achieved."

Such neighborhoods are also less likely to have green areas that may promote walking and physical activities, and they tend to be less safe, which influences whether people want to walk or participate in outdoor activities.

Healthy foods are typically more expensive and although most neighborhoods have a corner market where people can get day-to-day items like bread and milk, these stores often lack a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Studies on the number of supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods have looked for associations with obesity, but an association isn't a cause-and-effect, said Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center and associate clinical professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

"A fresh food market will sprout up in any neighborhood with enough people to support it," Ayoob said. "Farmers markets are popping up in thousands of low-income neighborhoods throughout the country, but to keep them there people have to actually patronize them." In Philadelphia, Common Market, a non-profit distributor of local farm fresh food, provides food to area children.

"I live in one of the lowest-income and [majority] African-American school catchment areas in Philadelphia, with over 90 percent [of the students] qualifying for free and reduced lunch," said Tatiana Garcia-Granados, co-founder and executive director of Common Market.

"The idea of Common Market was born from our frustration at the lack of healthy fresh food options in the neighborhood," said Garcia-Granados. "My husband and I tried to start a farmers' market and buying club to address this need and realized that the problem was much bigger-that the infrastructure connecting farms to the city had disappeared. The Common Market strives to recreate that link, enabling the healthiest farm fresh food to reach the city in an affordable, efficient way."

Common Market, now entering its third year of operations, has grown by serving institutional food services -- hospitals, public and private schools, universities and eldercare -- with food direct from the family farms within 100 miles of Philadelphia. As many studies have shown, local food is more nutritious because it is grown and picked for freshness rather than for withstanding shipping and storage. All of Common Market's farmers follow growing practices that limit the use of chemicals and pesticides and adhere to the highest levels of food safety.

Kelder says access to healthy food must be a top priority for obesity prevention efforts and he suggests that people and communities take the matter in their own hands.

"The honest answer is political," he said. "People that live in food deserts need to somehow encourage the development of healthy food outlets. And to do that, you need to make your wishes known. Visit your local chamber of commerce, and visit with local elected officials, or try your pastor at church. Political action doesn't happen until someone asks."

To get healthy foods, Kelder said, sometimes it's just about asking.

"Ask your local convenience store or corner grocery store to stock healthy foods-and then buy it when they do." Kelder said. "Store owners want to sell products their customers want to buy."

Kelder also suggested having healthy food delivered directly to your home from online retailers. And although he admits this is not a great option for fresh fruits and vegetables, it is a great way to get healthy processed foods, particularly cereals and foods high in fiber.

"There are also many grocery stores and community gardens that will deliver food right to your house," he said.

"Finally, start a family or community garden," Kelder said. "Our grandparents grew a lot of their own food in their backyard. And besides, it's a good way to get exercise, at least for part of the year. If gardening is not an option for you, consider joining a local food co-op, or get involved with community-supported agriculture.

To make going to the local fresh food market more worthwhile, Ayoob tells families to make it about more than just the food, which can make it just another errand.

Instead, make it about the experience.

"Make it a part of some family fun," Ayoob said. "Get kids talking to the farmers, learning about fresh food. Even if you have only a single supermarket in your neighborhood, get kids involved in shopping for food with you and helping to prepare food."

Ayoob also supports gardens as a way to educate and solve problems.

"If you have a backyard, you have a gardening opportunity to help minimize a food desert," Ayoob said. "A backyard that isn't growing some kind of food during at least some part of the year is wasting an opportunity. That also creates an opportunity for kids to learn about and value food."

Related Readings

The School Front of the Obesity Epidemic
It Takes More than Fresh Food to Reign in Childhood Obesity
Minority Health and School Food: What's the Link?
National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet [PDF | 113KB]
NSLP Child Nutrition Fact Sheet [PDF | 43KB] Exit Disclaimer
Food Research and Action Center Exit Disclaimer
USDA The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends, and Issues [PDF | 463KB]
CDC Obesity Rates
Nutrition 101
Portion Distortion Exit Disclaimer
Let's Move

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