A Holistic Approach to Healthy Food Intake

Unfortunately many people still live in communities that are not designed to support health and more specifically do not provide access to healthy foods. Recognizing the lack of access to healthy foodsas a contributor to poor health outcomes, policymakers in many cities have incentivized the development of full service grocery stores in neighborhoods classified as food deserts. Some follow up studies have found mixed results on the impact of these grocery stores on the diet of local residents. These studies highlight the critical need for a robust and comprehensive approach to changing food habits. We know that the presence of a supermarket is one factor, but certainly not the only factor that influences healthy eating patterns.

According to a joint report by PolicyLink and the Food Trust, there are many other factors that can facilitate (or inhibit) the diets of neighborhood residents, including: the availability of transportation options to a grocery store, quality and price of the healthy food options within the grocery store, and availability of culturally appropriate food choices. Other studiespoint to the greater access to processed foods at low prices available at convenience stores, especially in communities with high percentages of low-income and minority populations.

After years of battling chronic diseases, such as obesity, there are now a few communities that have seen a small but clear reverse in the upward trend. Although each of these communities has employed unique strategies to combat chronic diseases, they have also employed a comprehensive approach for increasing both physical activity levels and healthy food intake. For example, Philadelphia, which has seen a 4.7% decrease in childhood (K-12th grade) obesity levels, employed a comprehensive approach to increasing healthy food intake. Philadelphia coupled its program of increasing grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods with other initiatives that provided nutrition education, marketing of healthy foods, community gardens and farmers markets, and healthier options in corner stores.

We have also seen many local examples, where industry leaders have created effective solutions to the gap in access to healthy foods. The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative, increased the availability of healthy foods, promoted healthy foods through creative messaging and provided education programs to the community. According to evaluation efforts, from 2013 to 2014, produce sales at two of the participating stores increased by an average of over 60% (based on 6 months of data from each year). A similar program, Healthy Retail SF, helped transform existing markets in San Francisco’s high-poverty neighborhoods, by developing a business model based on produce sales, promoting in-store healthy foods, and undertaking a community engagement process to better understand local resident needs.

As we work to increase access to healthy foods, we must remember to undertake a holistic approach that addresses the needs and opportunities, which are specific to each community. By learning from and building on successful initiatives, we can bridge the gap for the millions of people who still lack basic access to fresh and healthy foods.

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    Comprehensive programs that include educational programs are more likely to have successful results.
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    Local farmers markets help to provide residents with greater access to healthy food options. Photo: Tom Fox
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    Providing multi-modal access to a grocery store can help to increase resident use. Photo: Flickr user E.N.K.