Is poor access to groceries making people fat? That’s the question posed in a new report that looked at Americans and their proximity to fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
According to the USDA, 23 million Americans live in what’s called a “food desert,” or an area where 33% of the residents are over a mile away from the nearest supermarket (or in some rural areas, over 10 miles). The largest grocery store-barren towns are reportedly found in rural areas of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, as well as urban areas like Detroit, Chicago and—believe it or not—New York City. Not only do some folks in these and other areas lack a nearby supermarket, but our government says that’s contributing to the rising obesity rates.
But is it? Does the lack of a nearby local supermarket really force people to rely on unhealthy, fattening foods like those more readily found in convenience stores and fast food chains? Theoretically, it appears so, but some experts have proven otherwise.
Let’s look at some of the arguments:
- People live too far away to get to a grocery store so it’s not convenient. Only 15% of people shop for groceries within their own local area, according to research from the University of Washington. In other words, most of us typically trek a few miles to stock our refrigerators so we don’t need always a store that’s right around the corner (although, that would be nice).
- Poor and rural residents don’t have the means to drive several miles to get to a supermarket (after all, food deserts contain at least 20% of people below the poverty level). Nearly 93% of households in a food desert market do have access to a car and can easily make the trip.
- If people lived closer to a grocery store, they would shop there more often. Not so. After following the eating habits of 5,000 people, researchers from the University of North Carolina concluded that living near a grocery store had little impact on whether people ate healthily or not.
So what’s the real problem then? Why are so many people opting for fattening, unhealthy foods when fresher, healthier options are within their reach? Is it laziness? Do people just not care about their health? Or do people simply prefer fast food over fresh food?
It appears to be a matter of all three. Like it or not, we are living in an era of fast-food junkies. Many people in our country now prefer double cheeseburgers, supersized fries, mega-sized sodas and pre-packaged processed foods to things like lean chicken and fish, broccoli, spinach, celery, carrots and even the all-American apple. And they would rather go through the drive-thru than sit down to a home-cooked meal. In some instances, people claim they don’t have the time to eat healthy (even though making a salad can take less than three minutes). Others say they’re too busy or their work schedule doesn’t allow them to eat better. And then there’s the debate over whether it’s really possible to eat healthily on a budget.
There’s also growing evidence of fast food addiction, with researchers blaming fat, salt and sugar for being as addictive as drugs. Now that’s scary.
Pass the peas.
Photo: Courtesy of Whole Foods