Combating childhood obesity by supplying children with healthier options may not be the route the government wants to take, according to the first study designed to evaluate the government’s impact on food consumption. Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center compared supermarket food options in two different neighborhoods in the Bronx in order to see how they affected the local children’s diets. Their findings, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, reveal a failure in the supermarket’s ability to influence healthy diets or reduce childhood obesity.

"Low-income and ethnic minority neighborhoods are underserved by supermarkets relative to their higher-income counterparts, and it would appear to be logical that increasing availability of healthful foods could improve diets," the study’s coauthor Dr. Brian Elbel, an associate professor of Population Health at NYU, said in a press release. "However, we do not yet know whether or under what circumstances these stores will improve diet and health. Food choice is complex, and the easy availability of lower-priced processed foods and pervasiveness of junk food marketing have implications for behavior change as well. New supermarkets may play an important role, and further work is needed to determine how these policies might be best structured."

The new supermarket that was placed in the Bronx’s Morrisania neighborhood was a fully functional, government-supported option to supply locals with greater varieties of fresh, affordable fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Highbridge, on the other hand, had no new supermarket built. Both neighborhoods were considered “food deserts” with very few options for caregivers to supply their children with better options, but when researchers compared them, they saw — grocery store or not — it barely made a dent in improving children’s diets.  

Before the new supermarket was open in Morrisania, researchers surveyed caregivers in both neighborhoods who had children between the ages of 3 and 10 years old passing by on the streets. Five weeks after the supermarket was opened, they conducted another survey, and then again one year after it opened. Researchers ended up with a total of 2,230 surveys on the neighborhoods’ food consumption, and what they found were small but inconsistent changes in locals’ diets, but not enough to represent a trend toward healthier choices.

Obesity's Cheap Role In Childhood

Unfortunately, the prevalence of obesity is found to be densely populated in low-income and minority children. In the past 30 years, obesity among children has more than doubled and quadrupled among adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s a much higher likelihood that obese children will not “grow out of it,” but instead will become obese adult members of society. This means an entirely new generation of people with a high risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. According to the CDC, a child’s diet and exercise behaviors are impressionable, and typically influenced by society, family members, communities, schools, government agencies, entertainment, and the food and beverage industries.

They have a lot of hurdles up against them, such as less access to fresh, healthy food choices and a disproportionately high number of fast food restaurants, and small grocers and bodegas packed with processed foods, sodas, and canned goods. Fresh food perishes faster than processed foods and many caregivers in lower income neighborhoods live paycheck to paycheck. A high sodium and processed canned ham is more reliable to keep in the cabinet than chicken cutlets, or a can of frozen juice than an apple a child may not want, according to the Food and Research Action Center.

Obesity flourishes among low-income populations for several tightly knit reasons, one of the greatest being the common denominator: price. The study found food availability is not necessarily a direct cause of obesity; however, there is a strong link connecting the two that cannot be ignored. They’ll need to conduct further research on how (and if) expanding food choices to children and their families will lead to healthier choices and lower obesity rates.

Source: Elbel B, Mijanovich T, Moran A, Dixon LB, Kiszko K, and Cantor J, et al. Assessment of a government-subsidized supermarket in a high-need area on household food availability and children’s dietary intakes.  Public Health Nutrition. 2015.