Owners of a Seattle start-up heralded as a solution to food deserts say they're not surprised by a new study showing no correlation at the neighborhood level between fresh food availability and childhood obesity rates.
"In order to address systemic issues of health, we cannot simply create access to good food," says Carrie Ferrence of Stockbox Grocers, which this month won the Voracious Tasting Innovation Award for its efforts to open pint-sized grocery stores in isolated neighborhoods. "We need to address the other facets of the conversation, including education, community engagement and experience."
As reported on the front page of yesterday's New York Times, a study published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found "no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes." Furthermore, another new study demonstrated poor neighborhoods have twice as many supermarkets per square mile than affluent neighborhoods, upending the popular belief that residents of certain urban districts are the health hostages of convenience stores overcharging for canned and processed goods.
In a 1998 story entitled "Just a Single Orange in the Fridge: The Facts of Life in a Food Desert," The Independent chronicled a single mother's struggle to reach a supermarket after her baby's stroller collapsed. As the London paper explained, Ms. Small couldn't afford a cab or manage a bus trip with her one-year old son. As a result, her tiny kitchen was stocked with "cheap beans and spaghetti, large plastic bottles of pop, bread, chips, fish fingers, chicken nuggets and ice cream."
The story was published soon after British nutritionists began floating the food desert concept, winning the approval of government officials, who started crafting public health strategies to address the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although a pair of early studies showed the opening of a grocery store led to only modest dietary improvements, the idea crossed the Atlantic with its credibility intact. The term "food desert" first appeared in a 2003 letter to the editor of the Oakland Tribune, and became a staple of anti-obesity programming within a few years. According to the Times, the Agriculture Department features a food desert finder on its website, and the National Center for Public Research sponsors a National Food Desert Awareness Month.
Ferrence says she and her partner Jacqueline Gjurgevich understand that eaters won't opt for a banana instead of a burger on the grounds that it's sold in a nearby store. The Stockbox model calls for "innovative and inviting" stores that are likely to lure shoppers who wouldn't be drawn by the mere promise of healthy food. "We aren't just providing access to produce, we're addressing the bigger picture," Ferrence says.
"And we can't deal with food deserts in a bubble," she adds. "The issue is one that affects just about every community, regardless of income level." She suggests Stockbox can help eaters of all socioeconomic backgrounds make better food choices "by bringing food back into communities, making meals more accessible, and creating personal connections to food."