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New research suggests that neighborhoods previously deemed "food deserts"—a term given to poor urban areas without healthy, fresh food—may actually have more access to food than their affluent counterparts.
Public health advocates and like-minded allies like Michelle Obama have long called for more grocery stores and fresh food outlets in their fight against national obesity.
However, the New York Times reports that a new batch of research has some questioning the link between childhood obesity and the type of food being sold in a neighborhood, as well as whether more affluent neighborhoods truly have better access to a wide-range of food.
One study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that poor neighborhoods had nearly twice the amount of convenient stores and fast food restaurants as wealthier areas. While that finding may not come as a surprise, the study also found that the poor neighborhoods also had access to more large supermarkets and chain grocery stores per square mile.
"It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores,” Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who was not involved in the studies, told the Times. "But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking."
In a separate study for the RAND corporation, Dr. Roland Sturm found that children’s proximity to food had no bearing on their health, despite what food desert activists had previously suggested. In his research, students’ weight and the types of food they ate were unaffected by the supermarkets or restaurants around them.
Of course, the new research has found its own critics. Some health advocates, for instance, question the quality and price of fresh produce available in the poorer neighborhoods. You can read more on the studies and the debate over food deserts over at the New York Times.