Obesity cuts across all income levels, but low-income people face particular risks. One, of course, is the challenge of eating healthfully on a limited budget. As everyone knows, calorie-dense foods are generally cheaper and more filling than fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats, etc.
Another risk that’s getting increasing attention is the shortage of sources of healthful foods in many low-income communities. These communities are often called “food deserts” because they don’t have enough–or any–conveniently located full-service grocery stores or other sources of fresh, affordable foods.
Residents of these communities, especially those without cars and a good bit of free time, have to rely on nearby corner stores. These typically stock mostly soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, high-calorie snack foods and a limited variety of deli items.
It might seem that local governments and others concerned with public health should try to attract more full-service grocery stores into low-income neighborhoods. Some have and sometimes they’ve succeeded. But, as a tookit produced by the Planning for Healthy Spaces project of Public Health Law and Policy shows, there are significant challenges here.
That’s why I’m so excited by the D.C. Healthy Corner Store Program–a low-cost, community-based alternative for improving access to healthful foods and beverages.
The D.C. program focuses on corner stores in Wards 7 and 8–the District’s poorest wards. Together, these wards have only four full-service grocery stores to serve the needs of more than 140,000 residents.
The basic aim of the program is to get at least some of the wards, corner stores to sell more fresh produce and other foods that belong in a balanced diet. DC Hunger Solutions has taken a systematic, collaborative approach to this goal.
In the first phase of the project, it surveyed about half the corner stores in the two wards to find out what they sold, whether they accepted food stamps and/or WIC coupons and what could encourage them to shift toward a healthier product mix. It also held a “summit” to gain insights from D.C. agencies, businesses and other nonprofits.
Its report on this phase reflects the results. The bottom line is that the corner stores would be ready to sell more healthful foods if they believed they could make a reasonable profit. To get there, they will need help with sourcing, building demand and upgrades to their physical facilities and equipment.
DC Hunger Solutions has initiated activities to address these three needs. Will they solve the “food desert” problem? No. But they’re positive steps. And all can be expanded–if the District will make the needed investments.
Here’s a case where the Mayor and City Council need to focus on the ROI–potential reductions in obesity and related, costly health problems, a more robust small business sector, revitalized neighborhoods. There’s a yawning budget gap to fill, so opting for the investment won’t be easy. But it would be smart.