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Eliminate Food Deserts

Eliminating food deserts is one way to address growing childhood obesity, especially in low-income communities affected by malnutrition.

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Of children living in poverty, 44.8 percent are overweight or obese compared to 31.7 percent of the general population. The health risks associated with obesity are well known and include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, bone and joint disorders, and mental health conditions. And the economic costs to our nation are tremendous. Childhood obesity costs $14.1 billion per year across income groups and leads to a greater likelihood of adult obesity, which currently has a hefty $147 billion per year price tag. These concerns about the physical well-being of our children and avoidable costs burdening our health care system warrant action.

Limited resources often inhibit poor families’ ability to simply buy enough food to prevent them from being hungry. Within these families, healthy foods can be largely out of reach since they tend to be more costly. Such circumstances undoubtedly contribute to the fact that children living in poverty disproportionately experience challenges related to weight.

You can’t talk about obesity without also talking about hunger when focusing on kids living in poverty. This same income group is also more likely to suffer from not having enough food— about one quarter of households falling below the federal poverty line had food insecurity among children at some point in 2007, which was before the first full year of the recession.

Efforts to address obesity among low-income children should be considered within the larger context of malnutrition, which encompasses hunger and any relationship between hunger and obesity.

More must be done to improve access to healthy foods. The president has proposed the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would invest $400 million a year to reverse high rates of obesity in low-income communities by eliminating food deserts. The initiative would accomplish this by bringing supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods and helping small corner stores sell more healthy food. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is modeled after Pennsylvania’s successful Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which developed supermarkets in 80 urban and rural areas across the state, creating almost 5,000 jobs and providing nearly 500,000 residents with access to affordable groceries.

The nation’s food landscape is changing. It is clear that this is no small problem and will required sustained and serious efforts over many years. But we can find a way to solve it, and in doing so, improve the health and well-being of all children, including those facing the additional challenges posed by poverty.

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