The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
Most citizens would access these types of food through nearby supermarkets and grocery stores. However, according to a 2009 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million Americans are unable to access a supermarket within a mile from their residence.
Though these results are specifically from research conducted nationwide, the Philadelphia area is especially affected by these food deserts.
In a study that researched access to healthy food, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health found that, in 2012, there were 1092 standard corner stores in the city compared to 144 supermarkets. In the northwest section of Philadelphia alone, there were 15 supermarkets in contrast to 62 standard corner stores.
The study defines a standard corner store as “a retailer having less than 2,000 square feet, four or fewer aisles, one cash register and food as its primary product.”
“Usually the types of food sold at corner stores and served by fast food restaurants are highly processed, high in sodium, fat, calories and void of nutrients,” said Susan Thompson, a certified diabetes nurse educator for the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
“This situation leads to and perpetuates an unfortunate cycle of obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes. These conditions are now epidemic and impose a heavy social burden, not to mention human suffering,” said Thompson.
A Community Health Assessment conducted by the city of Philadelphia seems to reflect this. According to its findings, the rate of diabetes among adults in the city has risen from 13.4 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2012. That percentage is higher than the 10.0 percent for Cook County in Chicago and the 8.7 percent national average for the United States.
“The underserved portions of the population are probably the most vulnerable from this type of health situation; especially the young, whose development is threatened by poor nutrition,” said Thompson.
From the same CHA, it was discovered that Philadelphia’s teen obesity rate was 17.3 percent, above the U.S average of 13.0 percent. Also, the rate of Philadelphia teens that drink more than one sugary drink a day is at 25 percent.
Despite the setbacks, there have been some improvements. The same Department of Health study found that, citywide, there exist 62 farmers’ markets in addition to 477 healthy corner stores and 141 enhanced healthy corner stores.
The Get Healthy Philly initiative, started by the Department of Health, offered a $100 yearly incentive to corner store owners to add “at least two healthy products in at least two food categories including: fruits and vegetables, low-fat airy, lean meats and whole grains.” These cooperative businesses are then dubbed healthy in the study.
Enhanced healthy corner stores received actual physical changes to their inner setup, including the addition of small refrigeration units and more shelves. More fresh produce was able to be carried in these stores, as a result.
The northwest section of the city possesses 19 of these healthy corner stores and three of the enhanced healthy corner stores.
“It’s tough, but I do think there are some healthier options out there, even in the food deserts. I usually ask people to consider water, rather than sweetened beverages and to try to eat more fruit and vegetables,” said Thompson. “Even if it’s canned, it’s better than cheese curls and chips. Some fast food places have a healthier menu including things like salad, grilled chicken rather than fried, apple slices, milk, egg white sandwiches versus whole eggs, milk, oatmeal, etc.”
“I think if people want to make healthy choices, they will be able to find healthier options – maybe to a lesser extent in the food desert, but some level of choice remains,” said Thompson.