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Food Swamp': Studies Reveal Urban 'Food Deserts' Not so Parched for Health Food Access


"twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile."

Some would have you to believe urban areas are riddled with greasy fast food restaurants with little accessibility to healthy food options. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even has a locator for areas deemed "food deserts," regions where there is low access to healthy food. Michelle Obama has made food deserts a part of her campaign against childhood obesity, saying last fall in Chicago that some residents on the South Side may have to take two or three buses or a taxi to get fresh fruit and veggies.

(Related: USDA to spend $10 million to help fund Michelle Obama's food deserts)

Now, two new studies are countering this sentiment, according to the New York Times. They have found that access to healthy food may not be as difficult to locate in poorer urban areas as previously thought. We reported in 2010 that even the Department of Agriculture estimated poorer individuals lived closer to grocery stores than those with higher incomes.

The Times has more on the recent studies:

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

Sturm's study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found no relation between the California children and teens whose data he reviewed and the food they ate, their weight and proximity to food establishments within a mile and a half from their home. In a separate study that will publish in Public Health, the Times reports, Sturm took a national look at middle schoolers and saw consistent results on that larger scale as well. There was not a relationship between where the middle schoolers lived and where they ate.

The second study referred to by the Times was conducted by Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California. Lee had data on 8,000 students, where they lived, went to school and how much they weighed. From there, the Times reports Lee saying she established where the students could be getting access to food around their home and even defined neighborhoods based on their economic status. The Times has more on what she found:

Poor neighborhoods, Dr. Lee found, had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.

In case you're wondering, there is specific criteria for how a food desert is designated as such, according to the USDA:

  • To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income;
  • To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The Times reports researchers not involved in the study saying other considerations need to be taken into account when reviewing this information. For example, it reports John Weidman with the Philadelphia-based Food Trust advocacy group saying "not all grocery stores are equal" in terms of quality of healthy food provided.

The Times also clarifies Mrs. Obama fight against food deserts with a USDA spokesman saying that access to healthy food isn't the one thing that will help improve children's health in the United States. Justin DeJong told the Times in an e-mail  “a comprehensive response" that includes improved access, healthy food in schools and more physical education are among what the country need to trim down.

At the same time as these findings have been compiled, a new study from the Medical University of South Carolina has found that even those considered overweight may still technically be as healthy as slimmer individuals. The Daily Mail reports the study suggests obese individuals who engaged in healthy activities -- eating well, exercise and limiting alcohol -- held the same risk for dying young as those who were not considered obese.

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