Blog Posts by Liz Goodwin

  • Battling food deserts: Can new supermarkets and revamped corner stores curb obesity in cities?

    New, subsidized grocery stores have opened up Philadelphia as part of a state initiative to battle urban food deserts. (Tim Graham/Getty)

    This story is part of a Yahoo News' look at obesity in the United States.

    In a busy shopping center in a once blighted neighborhood in North Philadelphia, The Fresh Grocer supermarket attracts an eclectic crowd of customers. On a recent snowy Friday afternoon, some were cruising the grocery store’s upscale sushi bar while others clutched coupons and scoured the store for deals.

    Just three years ago, the spot where the gleaming supermarket now sits had been empty for a decade, leaving neighborhood residents without a local grocery store. A Pennsylvania state program aimed at eradicating “food deserts”—poor neighborhoods where residents have to journey more than a mile to find produce—doled out millions in tax breaks and grants to The Fresh Grocer supermarket chain and dozens of other stores to help them open in underserved areas.

    Subsidizing supermarkets is one of many aggressive taxpayer-funded experiments policy makers have embraced as a way to battle the country’s high obesity rates. And while it may seem obvious that providing healthier food in neighborhoods helps residents eat better, research so far has been mixed, and no one has found a causal link between the availability of fresh food in neighborhoods and obesity.

    First lady Michelle Obama visited North Philadelphia’s Fresh Grocer in 2010 soon after it opened to kick off her “Let’s Move” campaign, which has encouraged local governments to get fresh food into food deserts, among other initiatives. The Obama administration has said it wants to eradicate food deserts entirely by 2017, and the federal government has funded similar grocery initiatives with millions of dollars in several states, arguing that they help combat obesity by providing residents with healthier choices while also creating jobs in economically depressed neighborhoods.

    A U.S. Department of Agriculture review of food deserts conducted in 2009 concluded that people who live in food deserts have unhealthier diets than those who don’t. But it’s still unclear whether introducing healthy food to those areas changes eating habits. That gap has led some to question the wisdom of pouring public funds into these initiatives.

    The RAND Corporation’s Roland Sturm, one of the chief critics of the movement to subsidize supermarkets in low-income areas, says the problem in urban areas is too much food, not too little. Sturm’s research on childhood obesity rates has found that there’s no correlation between the number of supermarkets near children’s homes and their diet quality or body mass index.

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  • First Latin American pope could counter declining Catholicism

    Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

    Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first non-European pontiff since the eighth century, bringing a distinctly New World flavor to the Vatican that Catholics hope can reverse the decades-long trend of Latin Americans leaving the church.

    Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, acknowledged how unusual his non-European origins are as he greeted thousands of faithful outside St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday night. "As you know, the duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am," he said shortly after his election.

    Pope Francis shares his faraway home of Latin America with about 40 percent of the world's Catholics, a plurality of the world's faithful that has nonetheless eroded significantly in the past 50 years as droves of Catholics converted to evangelical Protestantism.

    Roberto Blancarte, a professor at the Center of Sociological Studies at El Colegio

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  • Background checks for guns clears Senate committee in party-line vote

    The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, used before gun purchases. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty)

    A bill to require nearly all gun buyers to undergo background checks narrowly passed a Senate committee Tuesday in a party-line vote.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to approve Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's bill, which would close loopholes that allow some people to buy guns from private sellers without undergoing a criminal background check. No Republican supported the measure.

    The bill, Schumer said after the vote, is the "sweet spot" of gun legislation that actually has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to pass.

    Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top ranking Republican on the committee, said he opposed the bill in part because he believes it would set up a national gun registry, which is prohibited under federal law. The bill would require licensed dealers to keep records of weapon transfers, and would allow people to transfer weapons without background checks only to immediate family members and in certain sporting or training events. "Criminals will continue to

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  • Restrictive new Arkansas abortion law shows anti-abortion strategy split

    Members of the group Silent No More pray for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in a January rally. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty)

    An aggressive new law banning all abortions after 12 weeks in Arkansas reveals a key split among abortion opponents that could affect the next wave of state laws that seek to restrict women's access to abortion.

    Arkansas state legislators overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto on Wednesday to adopt the strictest anti-abortion law in the country. But what looks like a victory for anti-abortion activists is actually just a futile gesture that will be quickly smacked down by courts, legal experts say.

    The bold tactic reveals a split in the anti-abortion movement among those who want to pass laws that incrementally try to make it harder for women to have abortions—such as requiring ultrasounds or waiting periods—and those who want to pass outright bans on the procedure that directly flout the Supreme Court.

    The "Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act" ignores the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that the government cannot ban abortions that take place before a fetus can survive outside the womb, considered to be at about 24 weeks. (The question of viability is a matter of debate and has changed as medical technology improves.)

    The law will almost certainly be swiftly blocked by the courts. In fact, a federal judge struck down a less restrictive abortion ban in Idaho on Wednesday, saying lawmakers were ignoring Supreme Court precedent by preventing women from having abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

    A prominent anti-abortion attorney told Yahoo News such laws are the wrong approach for state lawmakers to take.

    "It's certainly a statement, but looking at it in terms of legal effect or saving lives, it won't do that because regrettably it will be enjoined by the courts," said James Bopp Jr., general counsel of National Right to Life.

    Bopp said the anti-abortion movement has successfully reduced the number of abortions performed in the United States by working with state lawmakers to enact more and more regulations around the procedure. Daylong waiting periods, parental notification laws and a wave of recent legislation requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before being allowed to receive an abortion are ways to discourage women without directly challenging the Supreme Court's ruling against bans.

    "We think that is the appropriate strategy until the court would be willing to consider [overturning] Roe v. Wade, which they are not willing to do," Bopp said.

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  • Gun manufacturers group won’t fight background checks

    Bob Pfefferkorn sells handguns at the Gun, Knife and Outdoorsmen Show in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Feb. 9, 2013. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

    The nation's leading lobby for gun manufacturers said in an interview with The Washington Post that it will not oppose legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.

    "That’s more the NRA’s issue,” Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), told The Washington Post. “From the commercial side, we’re already there, and we’ve been there, and we were the ones that have been the strongest proponents of an effective, complete background check.”

    The group's position puts it at odds with the powerful National Rifle Association and is also a potential boon for a bipartisan group of senators working on legislation to expand background checks. Currently, gun buyers must pass a background check to prove they do not have a serious criminal record or have been declared mentally ill by a judge before they can purchase a weapon. But those who buy firearms from individuals who are not licensed gun dealers can avoid this check.

    The NRA has taken a strong

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  • North Carolina immigrants protest pink driver’s licenses

    Elver Barrios, a DACA recipient in Charlotte, protests the new licenses. (The Latin American Coalition)Young immigrants in North Carolina recently given work permits under President Barack Obama's deferred action plan are outraged: The state will be giving them driver's licenses emblazoned with a pink stripe and the words "NO LAWFUL STATUS."

    "It is discrimination," said Jose Rico, a 23-year-old community college student who has been protesting the new licenses, announced by the state's Department of Transportation last month. Rico, who was brought to Raleigh by his family from Mexico when he was 13, received a work permit three weeks ago under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

    The DACA program provides relief from deportation and a two-year, renewable work permit for young illegal immigrants under 31 who were brought to the country as children and are attending or have graduated from high school.

    Immigrant advocacy groups in the state are planning protests targeting the state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, in the lead-up to the special licenses' release March 25. McCrory seems unlikely to intervene in the Department of Transportation's decision, however. He has called the plan a "pragmatic compromise" between those who wanted the state to not issue licenses at all and those who wanted the state to issue regular licenses.

    Some state politicians, led by Republican state Rep. Mark Brody, have argued that the DACA program isn't valid because it was instituted by Obama through executive action last year, instead of approved by Congress, and thus North Carolina should not recognize it.

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  • Jeb Bush walks back ‘no citizenship’ stance

    Jeb Bush appears on NBC's 'Today' show Monday. (Peter Kramer/NBC NewsWire via Getty)

    Jeb Bush seems to want to have it both ways.

    On Tuesday, the former Republican Florida governor walked back a stance he took in his just-released book and said he's open to an immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship. The book, "Immigration Wars," notes that the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should not be allowed to "obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship," since citizenship could be construed as a reward for overstaying their visas or entering the country illegally.

    Bush, who supported immigration reform even when the party as a whole took a harder line on immigration in the last primary, surprised some with his Monday comments on NBC's "Today" show. He had said that most undocumented immigrants should have a chance to legalize but not to gain citizenship—unless they return to their home countries and apply from there.

    That put his immigration reform stance to the right of a proposal in the Senate, backed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and seven other senators, who believe illegal immigrants should be able to gain green cards after the border is declared "secure" by experts. (Rubio, also a Floridian, and Bush are both seen as potential presidential contenders in 2016.)

    Immigrant advocates and many Democrats say a path to citizenship is nonnegotiable in any bill. They argue that a bill that legalizes immigrants without giving them the option to naturalize will create an "underclass" of people not truly integrated into the country.

    But in an interview Tuesday, Bush suggested that the book did not include a path to citizenship in its recommendations in part because it was written before Republicans began to embrace such a plan. "We wrote this book last year, not this year," Bush said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

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  • Jeb Bush reverses course: No path to citizenship necessary in immigration reform

    Gov. Jeb Bush last year in Philadelphia. (William Thomas Cain/Getty)

    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a TV interview Monday that he no longer supports a path to citizenship in an immigration reform bill, a reversal that puts him to the right of the current bipartisan immigration proposal forming in the Senate.

    "If we want to create an immigration policy that's going to work, we can't continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration," Bush said on NBC's "Today" show. "I think it's important that there's a natural friction between our immigrant heritage and the rule of law. This is the right place, I think, to be in that sense."

    Bush, a Republican, supported immigration reform even when many in his party shifted to a harder line stance in the 2012 primary. As recently as last June, he said in interviews that he thought most of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should be put on a gradual path to citizenship if they meet certain conditions.

    But in the interview, Bush said that many of the immigrants who were legalized in the last immigration reform effort in 1986 did not apply for citizenship when they became eligible, suggesting it was not a key concern for them. "Half the people in '86 that could have gotten amnesty didn't apply. Many people don't want to be citizens of our country," he said. "They want to come here, they want to work hard, they want to provide for their families. Some of them want to come home; not necessarily all of them want to stay as citizens."

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  • Argument against gay marriage in California hinges on accidental pregnancies

    An exterior view of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty)

    In a brief filed with the Supreme Court last week, the Obama administration slammed the unusual legal argument now key in the movement against gay marriage: that gay couples cannot become accidentally pregnant and thus do not need access to marriage.

    The argument has become the centerpiece of two major cases addressing gay marriage that the Supreme Court will consider at the end of March, Hollingsworth v. Perry, a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban, and United States v. Windsor, which seeks to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

    "Only a man and a woman can beget a child together without advance planning, which means that opposite-sex couples have a unique tendency to produce unplanned and unintended offspring," wrote Paul Clement, a prominent attorney representing congressional Republicans in the DOMA case.

    Clement added in his brief to the Supreme Court arguing to uphold that law that the government has a legitimate interest in solely recognizing marriages between men and women because it encourages them to form stable family units.

    "Because same-sex relationships cannot naturally produce offspring, they do not implicate the State’s interest in responsible procreation and childrearing in the same way that opposite-sex relationships do," attorneys who are seeking to uphold Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California in 2008, argued in their brief. The opponents to gay marriage also argue it's possible the public perception of marriage would change if gay couples were allowed to wed, discouraging straight people from marrying.

    In the administration's friend of the court brief, the Justice Department took a dim view of the argument.

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