What we choose to eat plays a major role in determining our risk of gaining too much weight and developing diet-related chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Too often, an unhealthy food environment, with easy access to junk foods and limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, makes it a lot harder to make healthy food choices. The challenges created by an unhealthy food environment are especially tough for kids who haven’t develop preferences for healthy items and who can’t do much to seek out healthier items outside of their immediate environment. These unhealthy, “food insecure” environments are an injustice to kids with lifelong consequences. As a community, we can do better.
Unhealthy food environments are common in the United States. In general, the quality of foods consumed frequently is influenced by our proximity to supermarkets, fast food restaurants, or corner stores ("Toxic Food Environment" 2016). Around two million U.S. households live more than a mile from a full-service supermarket and don’t have access to cars - these conditions are sometimes referred to as “food deserts” ("Toxic Food Environment" 2016), although alternative terms like “food swamps” or “food insecure areas” are increasingly used to describe areas where there is a lack of healthy, affordable food and an abundance of unhealthy items. In food deserts, residents often rely on local “convenience” or “corner” stores for at least some of their groceries. Because urban corner stores typically have less variety, higher prices, and limited and lower quality produce compared to full-service grocery stores, reliance on these stores can make healthy choices difficult for everyone.
Corner store conditions may be particularly threatening to the health of kids. One study in Philadelphia found that kids relied heavily on corner stores before and after school. Using intercept surveys, the study found that children shopping at corner stores usually ate chips, candy and sweetened drinks. Amazingly, students were able to buy 350 calories worth of snacks for the dollar they spent in a typical visit (Cox 2009). A lot of students (42%) went to the corner store twice a day, which would amount to eating over 3,500 calories from the corner store a week – more than double the daily recommended calorie intake for young people. This is a big problem, considering that nearly half of children in lower-income urban areas are overweight or obese.
Corner store and other aspects of the retail food environment can also affect the health of the home food environment, which really influences food choices for kids. Adults in low income areas who have to rely on an unhealthy retail food environment often struggle to stock enough healthy items for everyone at home, including kids. But the retail environment isn’t the only factor that is important – individual behavior also influences the home food environment. For people to buy more healthy food options to bring into their homes, efforts may need to be coupled with promotions, education, and incentives for purchasing healthy food (Gordon-Larsen 2014).
Healthy home environments can also depend on parental behavior. If a parent takes the time to create a healthy meal and the adolescents observe this behavior, they are more likely to take up these healthy habits themselves ("Toxic Food Environment" 2016). One major change a parent can make to influence healthy eating within the family is to eat dinner together as a family ("Toxic Food Environment" 2016). Eating meals as a family has been linked with increased child and adolescent intake of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. These types of activities can have long-term consequences because eating choices of adults are highly influenced by what they ate as children ("Toxic Food Environment" 2016).
There are good examples of programs that have worked to improve home food environments and, in turn, childhood nutrition. Across Minnesota, many communities have worked with the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) to support and expand healthy eating and active living opportunities in schools, child care facilities, and workplaces (Minn. Dept. of Health 2016). Many Minnesotans are also a part of the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). WIC helps promote healthy eating and nutrition education for children and low-income women who are pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding (Minn. Dept. of Health 2016). Nutrition during pregnancy and early life is critical for children’s growth, development, and healthy eating behaviors as they get older. In Minnesota, one out of three children ages 2 to 5 are served by WIC and the obesity rate for young children enrolled in the program is the eighth lowest in the nation. Of the low-income families participating in WIC, the obesity rate among children ages 2-4 has decreased from 12.7% in 2010 to 12.3% in 2014 according to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture. This decrease in children’s obesity rates is paralleled by similar decreases in the adult obesity rate (from 27.6% to 26.1%, Minn. Dept. of Health 2016).
Part of the mission of BrightSide Produce is to help make healthier choices easier for everyone by helping corner stores stock affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. This post and other information on food environments suggests that healthier corner store conditions may make it easier to get kids to buy healthy snacks and may help parents increase the availability of healthy foods at home. If individuals have an easier time purchasing healthier options, maybe the “healthy” food trend will grow. And if adults can start purchasing healthier foods for their families, maybe more children will learn how to cook and eat healthy. We hope that BrightSide and similar organizations can continue to build a healthy food environment that helps everyone get the nutrition they need to reach their potential.
Cox, Lauren. “Corner Stores a Threat to City Kids' Waistlines?” ABC News, ABC News Network, 12 Oct. 2009, abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/city-kids-corner-stores-weight-gain-early-obesity/story?id=8795115.
Gordon-Larsen, Penny. “Food Availability/Convenience and Obesity | Advances in Nutrition | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 3 Nov. 2014, academic.oup.com/advances/article/5/6/809/4558111.
“Minnesota's Obesity Rate Drops for Young Children Enrolled in WIC.” News Release: Minnesota's Obesity Rate Drops for Young Children Enrolled in WIC, Minnesota Department of Health, 22 Nov. 2016, www.health.state.mn.us/news/pressrel/2016/wic112216.html.
“Toxic Food Environment.” Obesity Prevention Source, Harvard T.H. Chan, 13 Apr. 2016, www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/food-environment-and-obesity/.