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Is Food Access the Real Problem in City Heights?

By Megan Burks

Americans are in a new love affair with food. No longer attracted to the beefy showmen of illuminated fast food menus, we want our food a bit more sensitive and down to earth. The kind you’d find in a farmers market or produce aisle.

We’ve dumped the fried and processed foods for locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Food justice is our mantra, and communities still courting fast food chains and sugary brands are in need of an intervention.

But what if grocery stores brimming with healthy options just aren’t their type? A study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests just that.

Researchers tracked more than 5,000 men and women throughout the country from 1985 to 2001 and found that having access to a full-service grocery store was not linked to healthy food choices. Instead, diets were most affected by income and proximity to fast food restaurants; those with less money to spend and a quick meal nearby had the poorest diets.

The findings call into question whether recent efforts to offer incentives to grocers who open stores in low-income areas is the right strategy. Is access really the issue?

In City Heights, obesity and diabetes are major concerns despite access to national and local grocers, a farmers market and community gardens. Though initiatives aimed at getting people to the farmers market have seen success, it seems many residents are still choosing Jack and Ronald McDonald.

Perhaps that’s the real crux of the issue: choice.

The health problems found in “food deserts” that lack grocery stores are also seen in “food swamps” like City Heights. Within its seven square miles, there are nearly 60 fast food restaurants, 40 convenience stores and 120 liquor vendors, according to Health Equity By Design. None seem to be losing customers to grocery stores.

In a commentary of the study, Jonathan Fielding from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Paul Simon of the University of California, Los Angeles suggest that limiting these options could go farther in combating obesity than increasing access to healthy foods and grocery stores.

They recommend solutions like the 2008 Los Angeles moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. A smaller-scale solution is the new healthy food financing initiative by the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative called Cilantro to Stores. The project will entice four Chula Vista corner markets to replace some junk food with healthier options by funding store façade upgrades.

To date, there have been few similar efforts in City Heights. Instead, food justice advocates have focused on bringing a farmers market to the neighborhood and opening community gardens. These programs address availability, but they also influence healthy choices by way of price.

Unlike a new grocery store or a fast food moratorium, the efforts in City Heights make healthy food cheaper. In poor neighborhoods, especially ones with a high refugee population, choice is as much a function of one’s budget as it is of taste.

The farmers market and community gardens have made strides in changing eating habits, not because they brought produce to the community, but because they made the produce affordable. The International Rescue Committee doubles Cal Fresh and Women, Infant and Children (WIC) dollars spent at the market through a program called Fresh Fund. The organization’s community gardens reduce costs to time spent tilling soil.

The California Endowment is also trying to influence food choice by lining wallets. In June, the statewide health foundation announced a project that will double WIC funds spent on healthy foods anywhere the vouchers are accepted. The increased spending power gives low-income residents the option to make healthy choices and could makeover convenience store shelves if owners see profits on produce rise.

But it’s still unclear if subsidizing the fresh food market or changing the food environment from a desert or swamp to a food advocate’s dream is enough to change the health disparities that often plague low-income communities.

The farmer’s market in City Heights sees about 3,500 visitors per month, according to Anchi Mei of the IRC. But that’s only about 20 percent of the community’s 79,000 residents.

Is improving access through availability and price enough? What do you think will help City Heights dump the french fries and fall for fruits and vegetables?

[Disclosure: Speak City Heights is funded by The California Endowment.]

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