Better access to fresh food doesn't boost poor's health

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WASHINGTON -- Across the country right now, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on an effort to eradicate so-called "food deserts," urban and rural areas where it's difficult -- or even impossible --to purchase fresh, healthy food.

Philadelphia arguably has been the epicenter of that movement. Since the late 2000s, the city has invested millions in building new grocery stores and adding healthy food options to corner stores in the city's lower-income areas. Hundreds of stores have gotten on board with the movement, with corner-store owners selling apples and oranges alongside their more-standard chips and candy. The city has used funds from the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund to further bolster these types of programs.

But while Philadelphia residents are noticing the new grocery options, they're not actually eating any healthier, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. The paper is important because it's one of a small handful of academic studies that looks at what happens to eating habits before and after new grocery options become available. And it shows that, six months after two grocery stores opened in Philadelphia food deserts, there was no noticeable difference in body-mass index or fruit and vegetable consumption.

In this study, researchers affiliated with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Penn State University looked at more than 1,000 Philadelphia residents from different neighborhoods with similar demographics. Some had a 41,000-square-foot supermarket put into their neighborhood, and all lived no more than 1.5 miles from the grocery store.

"The new supermarket appeared to have a positive impact on perceptions of food accessibility for residents in the intervention neighborhood," study authors Steven Cummins, Ellen Flint and Stephen A. Matthews wrote.

But only about a quarter -- 26.7 percent -- of those who lived near the new grocery store began using the supermarket as their main food source. Among those who did, there was no significant improvement in body-mass index or fruit and vegetable intake.

The study only looks six months out after the supermarket arrived, so it's possible that changes could surface at a later point.


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