LONDONGovernment initiatives to improve access to healthy foods may have a limited impact on obesity in the United States, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Penn State University investigated the impact of a new supermarket opening in a low-income community in Philadelphia, classified as a "food desert" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The supermarket is part of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which has been responsible for 88 new or expanded food retail outlets in the area. This and similar recent initiatives have been implemented to increase the number of local supermarkets in rural areas with the intent of increasing access to healthier foods, which could lead to a decrease in obesity rates.
After studying around 650 residents over a period of four years, the results showed that although there were improvements in residents' perceptions of food accessibility, these did not translate into significant changes in diet.
Few residents chose to shop at the new supermarket once it opened, with only 27% of residents adopting it as their main food store and just 51% using it for any food shopping at all. Despite the program's objectives of improving diet, exposure to the new supermarket had no significant impact on reducing obesity or increasing daily fruit and vegetable intake.
"Though these interventions are plausible and well-meaning, this study suggests that they are only effective in taking us part of the way in changing dietary behaviorin order to realize their full potential we need to better understand how to translate changes in perception to changes in behaviors," said lead author Steven Cummins, Ph.D., professor of Population Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Despite these results, another recent studied attributed stabilized obesity rates to greater access to healthier foods, along with better eating habits and an improving economy. According to the study, obesity rates have stabilized since 2003.