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Healthy Foods Harder to Find in Poor Neighborhoods

Wealthier areas offer residents more nutritious items in stores, studies find

FRIDAY, March 6 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that stores in poor neighborhoods are much less likely to offer healthy foods than those in wealthier parts of town.

"Where you live matters in terms of your diet," said study author Dr. Manuel Franco, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "If you live in a neighborhood with no healthy options, it'll be tough for you to change your diet."

Researchers are familiar with the idea that poor people have a harder time getting access to healthy food. But Franco said the two studies his team published are the first to take a look at the issue in a large city; in this case, it was Baltimore. Previous research, he said, only looked at a few neighborhoods or areas.

Researchers visited 226 food stores in the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County -- including supermarkets and convenience stores -- and looked at the availability of healthy food. They then tracked the availability of healthy food in each of 159 neighborhoods.

The findings were published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The researchers found that 43 percent of predominantly black neighborhoods were in the third of neighborhoods with the least healthy food; 46 percent of the poorest neighborhoods were in that group.

By contrast, just 4 percent of predominantly white neighborhoods were among the third of neighborhoods with the least healthy food. Just 13 percent of the wealthiest neighborhoods were in that group.

A related study by Franco and his colleagues was published in the March issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It looked at a survey of 759 Baltimore residents and found that 24 percent of blacks lived in neighborhoods with poor availability of healthy food, compared to 5 percent of whites.

According to Franco, the research suggests that supermarkets, sometimes seen as a panacea for poor neighborhoods, aren't necessarily the answer. "You have to make supermarkets, grocery stores and convenience stores offer a certain amount of healthy food. There are huge variances between the same type of food stores, depending on the neighborhood where they're located."

Franco said neither the store owners nor the residents themselves are entirely to blame. "It's a more complex system than that," he said.

In Baltimore, Franco said, researchers are working to improve the availability of healthy food by working with city officials and food store owners.

Shannon N. Zenk, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies neighborhoods and health, said incentives such as tax breaks can encourage markets to offer more healthy foods. Another strategy is to give cash subsidies to the poor for the purchase of fruits and vegetables, Zenk added.

"Obesity and numerous chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are more prevalent in low-income than higher income neighborhoods," Zenk said. "Ensuring that residents of these neighborhoods have access to nutritious foods is a critical first step to promoting healthy eating and, in turn, reversing the obesity epidemic and preventing chronic diseases."

More information

Learn more about healthy food from Harvard University.

Eating Healthy in Any Neighborhood

Lona Sandon, assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, had these tips for finding healthy food -- even when the pickings are slim:

  • Shop early in the morning on weekends when produce shelves are freshly stocked. This way you get the best of what's available before the weekend rush hits.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables are a good substitute for fresh, and they keep longer. They're also less expensive most of the time, Sandon said.
  • Canned fruits and vegetables are also a good substitute when fresh is not an option. For fruit, look for those that are packed in their own juices or water. If only heavy syrup is available, be sure to drain and rinse before eating to cut out added sugar. Look for low-sodium options in the canned vegetables aisle. If they're not available, be sure to drain and rinse the veggies before eating.
  • Canned beans "count" as a vegetable and are a good source of protein, fiber, folate and other important vitamins and minerals, Sandon noted. They're versatile too, working great in soups, stews and salads.
  • When shopping for meat, look for the leanest cuts available. Trim any visible fat or remove the skin to lower the saturated fat of lower-cost fatty cuts.
  • Go for dried spices as some stores may not carry fresh. Dried spices are still good sources of antioxidants, Sandon said.
  • It may be hard to find skim milk in some smaller stores but most at least carry 2 percent milk in addition to whole milk. Go for the 2 percent. This at least cuts out three grams of saturated fat per cup, according to Sandon.
  • For cereal, pick oatmeal over ready-to-eat cereals with added sugar. A serving of oatmeal counts as a whole grain and is a staple food carried by most grocery stores.

SOURCES: Manuel Franco, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and assistant professor, National Center for Cardiovascular Research, Madrid, Spain; Shannon N. Zenk, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., assistant professor, University of Illinois at Chicago; Lona Sandon, RD, assistant professor, clinical nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern, Dallas; December 2008, American Journal of Preventive Medicine; March 2009, The American Journal of Clincal Nutrition

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