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78,000 area residents live in food wastelands

January 30, 2012
by Cory Frolik
Dayton Daily News

About 78,000 people in the Miami Valley live in poorer areas that lack markets that sell affordable and nutritious food, and low-income residents and those without post-secondary educations have some of the highest obesity rates in the state.

Experts said the struggling economy is likely contributing to bulging waistlines, because consumers are spending less on food and some are sacrificing nutrition for the sake of cost. Health experts said obesity is an “epidemic” that often has grave medical consequences.

“A lot of people are digging their graves with their forks,” said Dr. John Maguire, medical director for the surgical weight-loss program at Miami Valley Hospital.

In 2010, about 34.3 percent of Ohioans earning $15,000 or less were obese, which is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.” Similarly, 35.5 percent of Ohioans earning between $15,000 and $30,000 were obese.

But among Ohioans earning $50,000 or more, only about 27 percent were obese.

Disparities also exist among Ohioans of various education levels.

In 2010, about 35 percent of adult Ohioans who had not graduated from high school were obese, and so were about 33 percent of adults who had a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma, according to the CDC.

In contrast, only about 24 percent of Ohioans with college degrees are obese.

Healthier food is more costly

In general, people with less education earn less, and people with low incomes live in poorer neighborhoods, which are rife with obstacles to staying fit and eating well, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Trust for America’s Health.

“Healthier food is more expensive, poorer neighborhoods have less access to healthier foods and if you live in a poorer neighborhood, you are less likely to have places where it is safe to walk, safe to play, safe to exercise and you cannot necessarily afford to join a gym,” Levi said.

Last year, the USDA launched an interactive map that identifies “food deserts” across the country, which are low-income census tracts where residents may have trouble finding affordable and nutritious food because of a lack of supermarkets close by.

About 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the United States are food deserts, and about 13.5 million people live in these areas, which are more than 1 mile from a grocery store in urban regions and more than 10 miles in rural parts.

The USDA map shows that about 41 food deserts are located in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, and they are home to about 78,000 residents with limited access to markets.

In food deserts, corner markets and other businesses that sell food usually do not have fresh produce or a wide variety of healthy ingredients and meal options, experts said.

Instead, the areas often have fast-food establishments and quick-serve restaurants, which sell cheap food that is high in calories but low in nutritional value.

Larry James, the dean of Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology, said many residents of low-income neighborhoods often do not have the transportation or the money to venture out of their communities.

“If I don’t like what’s on the menu in one restaurant, I can hop in my car and go to another restaurant, and if I don’t like the choices at one grocery store, my wife and I can go to another grocery store,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who don’t have the transportation means to do something that simple.”

Determining value of fast food

James said people with lower incomes and less education also typically have less access to information, which makes it difficult to learn about healthy lifestyles.

“If you don’t have a car, you don’t have a cellphone and you don’t have email, how do you figure out, in some reliable way, the caloric values of the meals you are eating?” James said.

In the absence of markets, many people eat food prepared away from home at fast-food restaurants and quick-serve establishments, and that can put people at risk of packing on the pounds.

Portion sizes at these businesses tend to be larger, and the food tends to higher in fat, added sugars and calories, said Jessica Todd, an agricultural economist with the USDA Economic Research Service. One additional meal away from home increases daily intake by about 134 calories, and Americans on average eat out about five times per week.

Environmental factors play a significant role in weight gain, and research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who moved from a poor neighborhood to a better one were more healthy and were less likely to be obese.

Although it would be impossible to move everyone out of the food deserts, it is possible to improve the eating opportunities in those areas, said Randi Love, clinical associate professor with the College of Public Health at The Ohio State University.

In Columbus, Love said the United Way of Central Ohio is working to improve the food available at corner markets and other businesses in food deserts to give those residents the option of eating more healthy.

Communities can also help battle the “obesity epidemic” by providing financial incentives to supermarkets to move into poorer areas and also to corner stores to provide healthier options.

Experts also said that exercise is one of the best ways to combat obesity, and communities need to offer safe recreational opportunities to residents to promote physical activity.

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