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‘Healthy Stores’ Program Boosts Demand for Better Food in Marshall Islans

Heading straight to the source — the grocery store — can help improve and sustain access to healthy foods among poor people, found a new study conducted in the Marshall// Islands. By learning about shop owners’ business needs and shoppers’ eating habits, the researchers were able to foster an increase in the supply of and demand for nutritious foods.

“Diet-related chronic diseases are at epidemic proportions, particularly among low-income ethnic populations,” said lead researcher Joel Gittelsohn, Ph.D., of the department of international health at Johns Hopkins University. “Studies have shown that where there is less healthy food available there are higher rates of heart disease and other diet-related chronic diseases.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands lies about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii in the mid-Pacific. Like many other native populations, Gittelsohn said, people there have undergone a conversion from a subsisting on a diet of local staples, such as fish and breadfruit, to one based largely on imported processed food. Obesity and diabetes are rampant. Thus the researchers found it “a prime location in which to pilot a food-store based program.”

For the study in the October issue of the journal Health Promotion Practice, the researchers gathered preliminary data about local economic and cultural factors. They conducted surveys and interviews with store managers, customers and community leaders, in some cases asking community members to review their findings and make suggestions.

The team took two main approaches to improving the food environment: through in-store activities, such as cooking demonstrations, and through radio and print advertising.

“Increased exposure was associated with increased purchasing of certain promoted foods,” such as oatmeal and turkey, the researchers found, and the interventions were “also associated with improvements in the healthiness of cooking methods.”

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