Access to healthy food: Build it and they’ll come?

    Efforts to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to so-called “food deserts” have gotten a lot of publicity lately, from First Lady Michelle Obama to the Food Trust in Philadelphia.

    A study out of the University of North Carolina, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that in four different cities, living closer to fast-food restaurants increased fast food consumption by low-income males. More surprisingly, living closer to a supermarket did not have a statistically significant impact on eating more fruits and vegetables for the general population surveyed.

    “A mentality that says ‘build it and they’ll come and they’ll eat in a healthy way’ probably needs to be abandoned,” said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, which was not affiliated with the study.

    The study did not look at what kinds of foods were sold at the markets or how much they cost, which could help explain the results. Still, Foster said, the study reinforces the idea that while providing access to healthy food is a basic right, it is no magic bullet.

    The study “gives us an opportunity as a field to say ‘What could we do that’s sustainable that would actually shift the behavior of folks in these underserved neighborhoods to perhaps choose healthier foods instead of less healthy?’ ” Foster said.

    The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has been supporting new farmers markets and putting healthy foods in corner stores with a $15 million federal grant. Sara Soloman is nutrition manager with the program ‘Get Healthy Philly.” She said the program prioritizes improving access to healthy foods in places where there historically has been little, but works incentives and education into the mix too in an effort to change behavior.

    “It’s a question of supply and demand, we can supply it but the food alone may not drive the demand,” Soloman said.

    The city is giving out coupons for produce at farmers markets and will soon distribute healthy recipe cards at corner stores.

    WHYY receives funding from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

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