It’s Not How Far You Have to Go to Get Healthy Food, It’s How Much it Costs When You Get There

As the obesity rate in America continues to rise year after year, researchers, policymakers, and experts in diet and nutrition have diligently looked for both the root cause of the rise and a solution to the problem.  One of the main challenges has been identifying why low-income families have higher obesity rates than their higher-income peers.  Research conducted over the last decade has pointed to the possibility of a causal relationship between obesity rates and availability of grocery stores that offered healthy food options in low income neighborhoods.  Basically, the less access you have to healthy choices, the less likely you were to make them.  However, a new study that was recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that access isn’t actually the problem.

Line of shopping carts

Education, not distance from grocery stores, is the key to making healthy food choices. (Image courtesy and copyright Roy Prasad)

The study, conducted by the research team at the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that access alone wasn’t enough to turn the tide.  The team tracked 5,000 participants in 4 cities over a fifteen year period and looked at their diet, their proximity to grocery stores, and their proximity to fast food restaurants.  One of their findings was in-line with previous research on this topic.  The closer you live to fast food restaurants, the more likely you are to eat fast food.  The second finding was a departure from many previous studies.

The study shows that income, in addition to fast food proximity, is a much greater factor in food choice.  The less money you make, the less likely you are to make healthy food choices, regardless of the options presented.  This finding supports the theory that regardless of availability, if healthy choices are more expensive than unhealthy choices, those with limited means are routinely going to choose the less healthy choice.

These findings challenge the idea that simply getting more grocery stores into low-income neighborhoods will begin to address the problem.  The real issue is comparably priced healthy food options and education that encourages healthy choices.  In a recent LA Times article on this subject Jamie Oliver, famous chef and healthy food advocate, explained that it isn’t about grocery store access.  It is about getting people to make the right choice, wherever they get their food.  From his perspective, people can find food that is just an unhealthy as fast food on the shelves at the supermarket.

In some ways, these findings support the push by several policymakers across the country to limit the number of fast-food restaurants that can be built in low-income neighborhoods.  But this solution, which impedes business, seeks to take the responsibility of making healthy food choices out of the hands of the people.  Limiting access to fast food by mandating which businesses can operate in which location won’t stop people from buying fattening, unhealthy meals at the fast food restaurants that are available.  It won’t help those people make better choices at the grocery store.  And it won’t help those who want to choose healthier foods but lack the funds to do so more able to take responsibility for what they eat.

The real answer is education and targeting assistance programs to help those most in need.  Changes like those recently made to the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) supplemental program, which allow the purchase of fruits and vegetables with WIC vouchers, are making healthy options more accessible to low-income families.  There is no quick fix to the obesity problem, but education and affordability will help those who are at the highest risk start to close the healthy eating gap and overcome this challenge.

*Editor’s Note: Go to our Fill Your Plate Facebook page and share about what has helped you make healthy food choices.

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