'Food Deserts' Causing Obesity In Low-Income Communities

Talib I. Karim | 12/15/2011, 2:02 p.m.
It's the holiday season and the Washington region is awash with receptions, dinners, and special...
Health advocate Dr. Maya Rockeymoore suggests that understanding the connections between food deserts, what families eat at home, and obesity can reveal solutions to chronic illnesses. /Courtesy the National Organization for Women (NOW)

It's the holiday season and the Washington region is awash with receptions, dinners, and special gatherings featuring plenty of food of all types. In fact, good food is so plentiful, it is easy to forget that in low-income neighborhoods in the nation's capital many residents continue to lack access to the type of food District holiday party-goers might take for granted--fresh. Nevertheless, health experts continue to sound the alarm that people who lack access to fresh, healthful and affordable foods are facing a number of nutritional problems and obesity is a major one.

The District's adult obesity rate is just 21.7 percent, the country's second lowest. When the overweight rate is combined with the rate of obesity, according to a report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 54.8 percent of District residents fall within this pool. This data also suggests that over a third of the District's adults who are either African-American or low-income (earning less than $15,000 per year) are obese. Moreover, the report indicates that 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the District are obese, more than quadruple the rate two generations ago.

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.