Simply building grocery stores that stock fresh produce may not be enough to encourage healthier eating habits in low-income regions, according to a new NPR report. Rather, broader access to healthy foods must be supplemented by nutritional education and cooking classes.
Researchers from Penn State surveyed Philadelphia residents for six months after a new supermarket with a variety of fresh produce and healthy foods was built. The results were striking. “We don’t find any difference at all,” said lead researcher Stephen Matthews. “We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.”
Matthews and his colleagues speculate that the reason they didn’t observe big changes in eating habits is because such habits are particularly difficult to overcome. Many low-income people grow up in areas populated by bodegas and mini-marts that sell processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. Consequently, these people just aren’t used to buying and cooking healthier fare.
The intransigence of unhealthy eating habits has been cited by public health experts as one of the reasons that obesity which sets in early on in childhood is so difficult to overcome. Although obesity rates among teenagers from affluent and well-educated families has been falling, obesity is actually on the rise among poor and less educated adolescents, according to a recent Harvard study.
In addition to access to healthy foods, experts say that low-income communities that suffer from high rates of obesity and diabetes also must be taught what to do with these products. “The next part of the intervention is to create demand so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar,” explained public health researcher Alex Ortega in an interview with NPR.