Federal policy changes lead to healthier options in urban 'food deserts,' study suggests

Johns Hopkins researchers tracked Baltimore corner store offerings

Federal food policy changes led to increased availability of healthy foods at smaller urban corner stores in Baltimore, new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests. Increases in healthy food were greatest in corner stores and in neighborhoods with a majority of black residents.

Many residents of cities such as Baltimore, where the study was conducted, reside in what are known as food deserts, on blocks far from supermarkets and inhabited by people with little access to transportation. There, residents are often forced to buy food from corner stores, where shelves may not be stocked with healthy options.

Data was collected from 118 Baltimore corner stores in 2006 as part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and again in 2012 under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Both datasets assessed healthy food availability by assigning points to various healthy options on the shelves.

In 2006, the stores had an average healthy food availability score of 7.06 out of a possible 18. Stores in census tracts where more than 60 percent of residents are black had the lowest scores (6.4 versus 8.19 in tracts where more than 60 percent of residents are white; and 8.76 in tracts without a racial majority). In 2012, the average score jumped by 1.25 points, with neighborhoods with a majority of residents who are white increasing by .18 points and neighborhoods with a majority of residents who are black increasing by 1.52 points.

The data revealed that corner stores, particularly in neighborhoods with large numbers of black residents, were more likely to increase the number of healthful food choices between 2006 and 2012.

One of the big changes that occurred between 2006 and 2012 came in 2009, when the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) required participating stores to improve food offerings by carrying more healthy options such as fruits and vegetables or whole wheat bread. The changes to this food stamps-like program for pregnant women and children at nutritional risk appeared to drive much of the increase in nutritious food in the small corner stores.

Poor diet is one of the biggest risk factors for death and illness in the United States, responsible for more than 600,000 deaths in 2010 alone, researchers say.

"This study shows us that, at a policy level, we can have an impact on the availability of healthy food in communities of individuals who are underserved," says study leader Laura K. Cobb, a recent DrPH recipient from the Bloomberg School. "It's not always practical to build new supermarkets, but this tells us we can impact healthy food availability in neighborhoods that need it the most by improving offerings at small corner stores."

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Tagged food deserts