Obesity Epidemic May Demand a Multi-Pronged Approach

June 9, 2012; Source: Miami Herald

Nonprofits have been aiming at inner-city “food deserts” for a long time, building grocery stores and supermarkets in neighborhoods that don’t have a decent place to shop anywhere nearby. Some of us have witnessed and participated in efforts to build supermarkets such as the Pathmark sponsored by the New Community Corporation in Newark’s Central Ward, the Pathmark done by Abyssinian Baptist Church in East Harlem, and others frequently linked to nonprofit community development corporations.

The importance of these facilities, many people thought, was to give lower income people in inner-city neighborhoods places to get a wide variety of foods and supplies such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are more fresh than what’s available in the local corner stores, and usually at much lower prices.

This Miami Herald article reports that nonprofits in Miami, such as Urban GreenWorks in the Liberty City neighborhood, aim to bring fresh produce to the inner city with the idea that the result will be to slow and eventually reverse the epidemic of obesity. We’re not so sure. Research suggests that having access to good food is healthy, but to reverse obesity, it’s going to take more than GreenWorks farmers’ markets. It may take initiatives such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war on trans fat and big-gulp soft drinks. It may take anti-obesity exercise and parenting efforts initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama, since, as a Rand researcher has noted to no one’s surprise, the obesity of children is strongly associated with the obesity of their parents.

There seems to be a bias in the Herald’s article that implies that the efforts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, either through farmers’ markets or new supermarkets, are going against the wisdom of researchers that access to fresh fruit and vegetables doesn’t undo patterns of obesity.

Miami has provided some stimulus funding for the subsidization of seven farmers’ markets, which haven’t had long seasons due to the less than timely funding disbursements by the Health Department. The executive director of Urban GreenWorks, which did not receive stimulus funding for its operations, called the Health Department program a “huge boondoggle,” though the Health Department and War on Poverty-Florida, which operated an Opa-locka, Fla. farmers’ market, disagreed.

Everyone in the article seems to have a different take on the problem. Should the solution be spurring new farmers’ markets with fresh produce? Building new supermarkets in food deserts such as Opa-locka and Hialeah, Fla.? Working with existing smaller, locally owned supermarkets already in or near some neighborhoods? Following the Bloomberg example of getting rid of the big gulps, the junk food in schools, the trans fats served in fast food restaurants? Pursuing the parent education and children’s exercise programs and recreation centers of funders such as the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation?

When it comes to healthy eating and healthy living, maybe the solution involves a mix of all of these strategies.—Rick Cohen