Tag Archives: childhood obesity

America’s Food Deserts

By Kim Smiley

A food desert is a community that lacks adequate access to healthy, nutritious food because they don’t have sufficient stores that sell these items at an affordable price, such as a supermarket. Both isolated rural areas and low income urban neighborhoods are typical locations where a food desert might exist in the United States.  In these locations, residents typically must rely on the food that is available nearby, usually small convenience stores and fast food restaurants.  Smaller convenience type stores generally don’t offer a variety of fresh food and vegetables and the prices are typically higher.  Many times the result is a less healthy diet and the potential health problems that go along with it.

A significant percentage of the US population lives without relatively easy access to a supermarket.  In a report to Congress, the USDA stated that 2.2 percent of the US population lives more than a mile from a supermarket and does not have access to a vehicle.  That’s 2.3 million people who constantly struggle with the logistics of buying groceries, even before the rising cost of food is considered.

How did food deserts come to exist?  In a country as wealthy and as industrialized as the United States, how is it that so many people don’t have access to a grocery store?

Food deserts came to exist because companies followed demand and built grocery stores where they would be most profitable, which is not typically low income urban locations or very rural areas.  Low income families typically have less money to send on groceries so more supermarkets were built in the more profitable, affluent neighborhoods than in poorer communities.  Some low income urban areas are also associated with higher crime rates so companies were hesitant to build in those areas.  People with lower incomes are also less likely to have access to a vehicle so the problem of buying food is compounded when the supermarkets are farther away from the low income communities.  Supermarkets are also less likely to be built in low population density rural areas because there are fewer potential customers and the stores aren’t as profitable.

While it’s relatively easy to identify why food deserts came to be, it’s still a tricky problem to solve.  Some groups have suggested that the government should provide subsidies to companies that build stores in food deserts.  Others are working to bring in foods to the people living in food deserts.

If you’re curious about where food deserts exist in the US, click here to view a map of the locations.  Click here to read a previous blog that discussed how food deserts are a cause of childhood obesity.

Childhood Obesity – A Community Problem

By Kim Smiley

It takes a village to raise a child . . .and to keep one from becoming obese. Childhood obesity is now being recognized as, at least partially, a community problem with community-based solutions. At the peak of the “obesity epidemic”, 32% of children in the U.S. were classified as overweight and 16% were classified as obese.

Obesity can result in a greater risk of disease (more than 90% of overweight children have at least one avoidable factor for heart disease.) This is an impact to the health goal of a community, and the nation. Obesity is the result of sustained weight gain. Weight gain is a simple balance problem. If calories consumed are greater than calories expended, as a result of too many calories consumed, too few expended, or both, weight gain will result. Usually obesity is caused by both.

First we’ll look at the causes of consuming too many calories. Too many calories are consumed when children eat high-calorie, low-satisfaction foods. In many cases, this is because a child has access to these types of foods and because healthy choices are not available. This is true with family, and at school, which generally contribute equally to caloric intake. A high proportion of foods consumed at school may be unhealthy; schools must offer healthier choices. Some schools have done away with soda and candy, but more healthy choices must also be offered. Students bringing their own lunches may suffer doubly from healthy food not being available at home, due to a lack of access or affordability. The all-too-many areas in the country that do not have access to healthy food at supermarkets or farmer’s markets are known as “nutritional deserts”, most frequently found in low-income and/or rural areas. Communities must improve access to healthy food, at school and at home.

The other part of the equation is calories consumed, otherwise known as exercise. However, children don’t need time on the treadmill; they need safe places to play outdoors or a safe route to walk or bike to school in order to get exercise. They also need physical education (PE) at school, and they need to see the importance of physical activity (something their parents may not be modeling at home, based on adult obesity rates, which are extremely high as well). Low-income and/or rural areas are less likely to have safe places to play outdoors, or a safe way for children to bike/walk to school, so these children are disproportionately affected by obesity. Communities must provide an outlet for physical activity for children.

On the downloadable PDF (download by clicking “Download PDF” above), we show the causes and solutions in a Cause Map, a simple intuitive format that fits on one page. The causes are solutions shown here are from the perspective of the community – causes and solutions that can be controlled by a community. If communities began implementing these solutions, the childhood obesity epidemic would be a thing of the past.

Want to learn more? See the Institute of Medicine report, issued in 2007.