Questioning whether ‘food deserts’ drive obesity

    Two new studies have some questioning a link between so-called “food deserts” and obesity.

    Health economists gave the “food desert” label to areas with few options for buying affordable, nutritious food. That imagery has helped rally policy and investment to fight obesity in low-income communities.  

    Will that go away?

    “I think that the reason that these isolated studies got the attention they did is because they in fact were contrary to previous work, and in some ways that’s interesting,” said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. “I think it would be premature to say based on these two new studies we are going to discard research from the previous two decades,” he said. 

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    In independent investigations, two California researchers challenge the idea that fruits and vegetables are scarce in many poor, urban neighborhoods. One study found no relationship between childhood obesity and the kind of food sold in a community.

    Allison Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at The Food Trust in Philadelphia, says crunching numbers from a national database can’t capture the nuances that are clear when you walk into local supermarkets.

    “The kinds of food they serve, the quality of the food in the store, the way you are treated when you go there,” Karpyn said.

    Temple researcher Gary Foster says better fresh food access is a necessary first step.

    “We may need to, creatively, in the store, at the point of purchase, figure out what are the pressure points, what are the points of leverage that we could use to get people to choose healthier,” Foster said.

    Karpyn said as part of its effort, the Food Trust keeps tabs on food served in schools and teaches people how to cook healthier meals.

    Other Philadelphia experts are sure to address this topic Tuesday evening. The city is hosting a panel discussion and screening of the new HBO documentary called “The Weight of the Nation.” Mayor Michael Nutter is featured in the series.

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