While the quantity of food consumed and physical exercise are major contributors to the rise of obesity in the nation's capitol, some point to the absence of healthy food sources as a critical factor in the District's poor health stats.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, who directs Leadership for Healthy Communities, said the scarcity of quality foods, particularly in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, are places where you can find food deserts--areas with high poverty rates and low access to healthy food.
"Food deserts are deserts in terms of having access to healthy foods. But many times, they have an overabundance of fast foods available to them -- restaurants, up and down the strip -- and that's all they have access to." Rockeymore said. "Some communities don't have access to grocery stores where they can get access to healthy foods."
Rockeymoore contends these calorie-rich/vitamin-deficient food sources in low-income neighborhoods are contributors to the disproportionate health issues faced by residents of these communities, including obesity.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods where the closest supermarket is more than one mile from their homes.
While it would be nice to have nutritious food options in every neighborhood in the District, the fact of the matter is that "certain stores tend not to locate in areas where they don't believe there is adequate demand by their target customers to support them," says Rockeymoore.
Perhaps not by coincidence, Rockeymoore's husband, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), last year co-sponsored H.R. 4971, Greening Food Deserts Act, to encourage local agricultural production and increase the availability of fresh food in urban areas.
Such efforts by federal and local stakeholders to change the healthy food landscape can make a difference asserts Rockeymoore.
On the federal level, Rockeymoore points to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" project. In partnership with three key Departments: Treasury, USDA, and Health and Human Services, the initiative seeks to leverage public funds to support private efforts to bring healthy foods to underserved communities. Thus far, at least one local non-profit, the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, was awarded $800,000 to build a 20,000 square foot full-service grocery store in Ward 8.
Rockeymoore also highlights the work of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, a private coalition dedicated to increasing the availability and sales of healthy, affordable foods through small-scale stores in underserved communities. According to Rockeymoore, through this initiative, some D.C. area convenience stores have received funding to purchase refrigerators that allow them to carry and sale fresh fruits and vegetables to the otherwise underserved.
The arts community also has a role to play, according to Philadelphia-based natural foods culinary consultant turned filmmaker, Joni Bishop. Recently, Bishop produced "The Corner Store Kids," a short documentary that reveals the connection between deplorable school lunches in inner cities and the relationship between students and the corner store. Bishop's next project--"Get Schooled"-- is an initiative that seeks to inspire hip-hip artists to take charge of promoting healthy and clean eating, along with losing weight.
This is the type of effort that advocates like Rockeymoore believe is essential to address the healthy food deserts that permeate neighborhoods in the District, Maryland, and Virginia.
Rockeymoore predicts that even after the area's newly planned grocery store outlets are constructed, there will continue be a dearth of full-scale supermarkets. Thus, she suggests innovative strategies for bringing fresh and healthy foods into food deserts such as community gardens, farmers' markets, and mobile healthy food trucks and carts.