Elizabeth Renter

A new study indicates that although obesity rates overall have begun to level-out and even decline in some instances, the problem is growing in some communities. Researchers with Harvard University indicate the gap between wealthy and poor is becoming increasingly evident in our waistlines. But though they identify lifestyle choices with the cause of the disparity, the study seems to miss one glaring contributor.

In August 2013, researchers with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that for the first time in 30 years, obesity rates in all but one US state were holding steady. In the same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported childhood obesity rates were actually falling. But in this most recent study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we learn that though the rates are falling for those in higher socioeconomic classes, they are rising among the poor.

Dr. Carl Frederick, lead author of the study, notes, “we document that the overall trend in youth obesity rates masks a significant and growing class gap between youth from upper and lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds,” according to Medical News Today.

Up to 2002, obesity rates among teens rose at about the same rate, according to the researchers. But after that year, a gap appeared and continued to widen. Though obesity among the wealthy has decreased, it’s actually still rising among the poor.

The researchers suggest (quite obviously) that a lack of physical activity paired with calorie intake is to blame for the widening gap and recommend we do more to promote healthier living among the poor. But, what does this mean exactly?

Telling people to eat better doesn’t do much good when they don’t always have the access to nutritionally-sound foods. We can put up billboards, offer more nutrition classes, and hang posters in community centers, but if people don’t have a local grocer with fresh produce, all the education in the world won’t likely have a major impact.

Food deserts: A leading contributor to obesity and ill-health among the poor

Food deserts are locations with limited access to nutritious foods. They could be rural areas, where the closest store is five to 10 miles away and only offers non-perishables because their trucks don’t come often enough to stock a produce department. They could also be in big cities, where supermarkets are unheard of and residents either buy their groceries from convenience stores (bodegas) or spend the money (when they have the money) on public transportation to carry them to a grocery store.

In 2006, 2.4 million American households were located in food deserts, according to PBS. And the vast majority of these households were simultaneously living below the poverty line.

The link between poverty and food deserts is undeniable. A measly 1.5 percent of the 2.4 million food desert households were in wealthy, suburban areas. These areas nearly always have a supermarket within walking distance and their residents have the vehicles needed if they have to drive a bit further. In areas like Wilcox County, Ala., however, where the median income is less than $19,000 per year, 18.6 percent of households are in food deserts.

And the link between food deserts and obesity is similarly obvious. Obesity and diabetes rates are significantly higher in these areas where high quality foods are unavailable. In 2008, counties with the highest percentage of food-desert households had obesity rates 9 percentage points higher than those with the lowest food-desert households, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Further, they had diabetes rates 5 points higher than in those counties with low food desert rates.

Access to high quality foods plays an enormous role in US health and obesity disparities. When you cannot buy fruits and vegetables that aren’t fried or in a can, the likelihood that you are eating in a way that encourages a healthy weight is pretty slim. When we talk about socioeconomic and racial disparities in the health of Americans, it’s not a matter of the poor “knowing better”; it’s a matter of them having the ability to “do better.” Narrowing the focus of solutions to better education on health matters doesn’t only miss the big picture of health disparities and access to healthy foods, it insults the intelligence of the poorest among us.

Photo credit: Paul Lowry