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Study shows access to food impacted by racial makeup of neighborhood

Poor neighborhoods in urban areas are known as food deserts, where access to grocery stores is limited. This week on WRVO’s health and wellness show Take Care, hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Kelly Bower of Johns Hopkins University, who recently led a study that found it isn't just poverty that is an indicator of whether or not supermarkets are readily available in a neighborhood.

Lorraine Rapp: We’re talking about a new study that found the racial makeup of your neighborhood determines your access to supermarkets. Why don’t you just describe your study? What were the findings?

Dr. Kelly Bower: What we found was when we looked at neighborhoods nationwide we found that the very poorest neighborhoods had the fewest supermarkets when compared to less poor neighborhoods. But what we found that I think is probably more surprising to listeners is that apart from the level of neighborhood poverty we saw that urban black neighborhoods have the very fewest supermarkets. So we were able to compare equally poor urban black neighborhoods to equally poor urban white neighborhoods and what we found was that the poor black neighborhoods had the very fewest supermarkets.

Linda Lowen: Many of us are familiar with the term food desert and we’ve heard it used in urban areas. But your study is taking this one step further. It is not purely, as you indicated, poverty that makes these types of stores unavailable in these markets. You’re saying that the African-American community above and beyond poor white neighborhoods, poor Latino neighborhoods, they’re the ones who suffer for this lack of grocery stores or supermarkets. Would you have an inkling of why this is so?

Bower: What our study was really hoping to do was to look at this issue. You know, we often get this concept of poverty and race sort of tangled up a little, and we were really hoping to be able to clearly see the individual role of the racial composition of the neighborhood versus the role of the level of poverty and the neighborhood. And so we were able to see that there was this sort of double disadvantage. So a neighborhood that is poor is disadvantaged in its access to supermarkets but then in addition a neighborhood that, just simply because the neighborhood is predominantly African-American, or predominantly Hispanic, they are also at a disadvantage related to their access to supermarkets.

Lowen: Well your background is in health and nursing so what is the correlation between lack of healthy foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and disease? Because there are some conditions that the African-American population is at greater risk for. What would those be and is there a direct correlation between that and what one eats?

Bower: Yeah, so our study didn’t look at obesity as an outcome, but there is a really strong body of research that has demonstrated that the more supermarkets that are available in a neighborhood, the lower the rate of obesity is in the residents of that neighborhood.  So, I think most in our country realize that we are facing a really severe obesity epidemic, and as you mentioned, the rates of obesity are very highest amongst our black and Hispanic populations.

Rapp: Are there incentives for supermarkets to open in these types of neighborhoods?

Lowen: Or should there be incentives?

Bower: Public policy makers certainly need to be thinking about ways to bring business to communities, and create communities where there is really quality public infrastructure where businesses would be encouraged or would want to locate. I think that we have to make it sort of a win-win situation for the communities, but also for the businesses.  

You can hear more of this interview WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.