Local food availability may not be linked to obesity rates

April 20, 2012

Two new research studies have found that lower-income neighborhoods may have more grocery stores, supermarkets, and full-service restaurants than more affluent areas of town. This goes against the belief that poorer regions are often “food deserts”—with only fast food and “unhealthy” food options to choose from. Additionally, the studies show there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

In a study published in Social Science and Medicine, the author—Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California—used data from a federal study of 8,000 children to determine where they lived, went to school, and how much they weighed. She combined this with a data set that compiled all the food establishments in the nation and included their sizes and locations. She then used census tracts to define neighborhoods because they tend to have economically homogeneous populations.

Lee found that poor neighborhoods had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.

In another study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Roland Sturm of the RAND Corp. used data on the self-reported heights, weights, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and teenagers in the California Health Interview Survey. The survey included the students’ addresses and the addresses of their schools. He used a different data set to see what food outlets were nearby. Sturm found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes.

Social Science and Medicine abstract

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine abstract