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.Read More »from Battling food deserts: Can new supermarkets and revamped corner stores curb obesity in cities?