It seems pretty far-fetched that bringing a supermarket to a disadvantaged neighborhood could, in a matter of months, turn back the tide of obesity.
So I wasn’t exactly shocked by the study in Health Affairs (AHCJ members have free access) this week finding that the addition of a supermarket made little impact on nearby residents’ diet or weight gain. The authors compared two demographically similar Philadelphia neighborhoods. Both were considered food deserts, but one received a new 41,000-square-foot-supermarket in 2009. Six months later, the authors found no significant difference in body mass index or daily fruit and vegetable intake between residents of the two neighborhoods. (In the neighborhood with the new supermarket, most residents didn’t even adopt it as their main store.)
The link between food deserts and obesity has always been somewhat tenuous. For instance, having a nearby supermarket or grocery made no difference in the amount of fruits and vegetables people ate or the overall quality of their diets in one of the largest observational studies to date. More recently, researchers analyzed data from 97,678 adults in the California Health Interview Survey and found “no strong evidence that food outlets near homes are associated with dietary intake or BMI.” They figured it’s because most people go by car and don’t limit their shopping to nearby stores.
News outlets tended to cast the latest study as a policy fail for the Obama administration. Obama’s $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative is based on the idea that making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible in underserved neighborhoods will help reverse diet-related health problems.
I’m not sure that a six-month pilot study on a single store is the final word. In a thorough report by Sarah Corapi at The News Hour, study author Steven Cummins says he remains convinced that better food stores are needed in many disadvantaged neighborhoods: Continue reading