Study: Newer markets with fresh produce may cut kids’ obesity rates among poor

Modern supermarkets with more fresh foods may reduce childhood obesity rates in impoverished neighborhoods, according to a new study. File photo by Aleph Studio/Shutterstock

May 9 (UPI) — Having access to supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables reduced obesity rates among children in some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, a study published Monday found.

After newer, more modern supermarkets opened in neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income residents, childhood obesity rates in these areas fell by 1%, the data published Monday by JAMA Pediatrics showed.

In addition, the new stories were also linked with 4% to 10% reductions in body mass index — a measure of weight against height — for school-age children in these neighborhoods, the researchers said.

Although the differences were small, the results suggest that opening new supermarkets in impoverished areas could make a meaningful difference, given that 14 million children, or 19%, meet the criteria for obesity, or being severely overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These results, however small, demonstrate that supermarket subsides might play an effective role in addressing the complex problem of childhood obesity in America,” Brian Elbel, the study co-author, said in a press release.

Such subsides might be “especially [beneficial for] our most at-risk Hispanic and Black children,” said Elbel, a professor of population health and medicine at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

Childhood obesity is strongly linked to a long-term risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, according to the CDC.

For this study, Elbel and his colleagues identified at least one supermarket in each of New York City’s five boroughs that from 2009 to 2016 participated in the city-run Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program.

As part of the program, the city offered grants and tax breaks to renovate or build new nearly two dozen supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods with high disease, the researchers said.

They then analyzed seven years of public-school health records for those students in kindergarten through high school who lived within a mile or more of the supermarkets that benefited from the program, they said.

Body weight measurements were then compared for one year before and for up to one year after the supermarket was redone or newly built, according to the researchers.

Within a year after opening of newly renovated or new supermarkets, obesity rates dropped from 24% to 23% among 22,712 school-age children living within a half-mile of eight such stores, the data showed.

However, there was no change in obesity rates among 86,744 students who lived farther away from one of the publicly subsidized stores with more space for fresh produce and perishable foods, the researchers said.

Obesity risk declined more among students in kindergarten through grade eight than in students in grades nine through 12, perhaps due to the fact that teenagers have greater freedom to travel outside their local neighborhood than younger children, according to the researchers.

To substantially lower death rates from obesity-related illnesses, childhood obesity rates in these neighborhoods would have to decline at least three times more than what was observed in the study, they said.

“Our study highlights that one in four New York City public school kids sampled, predominantly Hispanic and Black, is obese,” study co-author Pasquale Rummo said in a press release.

This is “a worrisome sign of the depth of the problem facing children’s health in the city,” said Rummo, an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone Health.

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