Thursday, July 21, 2011

Building an oasis in the desert

According to the Partnership for a Healthier America, 23.5 million Americans live in areas where finding affordable, healthy food is difficult. These so-called food deserts make healthy eating a true challenge, even if the population is willing to make lifestyle changes. To combat this issue and the rising tide of childhood obesity (of the 23.5 million Americans living in food deserts, 6.5 million are children), the Partnership for a Healthier America has announced an initiative to bring healthy, affordable food to 10 million people over the next five years.

The Partnership for a Healthier America, a key partner in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Initiative, received commitments from six leading grocery retailers, including Walgreens and Walmart, to open or expand over 1,500 locations in low-income areas. Walgreens alone has committed to expand a minimum of 1000 stores by 2016 to serve 4.8 million people in low-access areas. The New York Times reported that Walgreens will turn these locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruits, vegetables, and other items they do not normally stock.

This effort comes at a crucial time. One in three children is overweight or obese and the White House has said that, according to some research, today’s youth may be the first generation to have shorter lives than their parents. The lack of access to healthy food is a key contributor to the ever increasing weight of America’s children, as is the concentration of fast food outlets in low-income areas. The Bronx, to take one example, has 43 McDonald’s alone – if you were to add the Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy, and KFCs that number would be significantly higher.

Some cities have taken their own steps to ban unhealthy foods. In 2008, South Los Angeles issued a moratorium on building new fast food outlets in the area. The ban, advocated for by Community Health Councils, a REACH grantee, allowed existing restaurants to stay, but no new outlets have opened since it was passed. A few years ago, New York City issued a ban on trans fats and Bronx Health REACH led a successful effort to eliminate whole milk in NYC public schools.  

These are all important steps, but an overhaul of how food is distributed in this country is necessary. Though nutrition education is a big part of the effort, people cannot practice what they learn if there is not an affordable and convenient place to buy healthy food. Now is the time to turn our deserts into oases.

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