Making local food available is not enough to create a healthy diet

CVFSC Food for thought: What else might CVFSC do in addition to supporting the availability and appeal of affordable LOCALLY grown foods to help more people of all socioeconomic levels eat a healthy diet?

~ A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people on a tight budget don’t necessarily spend their money on healthier foods, even when they have easier access to them. The survey, which studied the eating habits of several thousand people in a number of cities in the U.S. for more than a decade, showed that making more fruits and vegetables available was not incentive enough to make them change their diets. Cheap snacks and fast food still remain the preferred choices.

Nutrition experts and policy makers have long argued that the scarcity of grocery outlets in low-income neighborhoods, a.k.a. “food deserts,” is one of the reasons why obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are so widespread.  The 2011 study indicates that this is not true.

“This raises the serious issue of how do we get people to eat healthy,” said Barry Popkin, director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and lead author of the study.

The healthiest foods are routinely the most expensive ones. Especially the costs for fresh fruits and vegetables have dramatically gone up in recent times. Obviously, it makes no sense to stock a lot of items people can’t afford. Perishable foods will always be pricier because of their shorter shelf life and extra expenses for refrigeration and labor.

“The cheapest calories come from fried foods, chips and sodas,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, who wrote a commentary for the study. What matters most for people with limited funds is to get the biggest bang for their buck. In terms of calories per dollar, fast food wins out every time.

Still, nutrition experts insist that improving the food environment is an important step to change people’s eating habits. “It can’t happen in a vacuum,” said Gwen Flynn, director of community health and education at the Community Health Council in Los Angeles. “What is needed is a comprehensive plan to change what people are eating, including community education and government and private subsidies for healthful foods.”

Educating the public is never an easy task, no matter what the subject is. Getting people to change their ingrained eating habits is probably one of the hardest things anyone can try. Predictably, there are plenty of voices decrying the involvement of government in such personal matters and their arguments are not always unjustified. However, most would agree that only informed choices are truly free choices. If people don’t know they have alternatives available to them, they will just keep doing what they’ve been doing before, whether it’s in their best interest or not.

Adapted from an article by Timi Gustafson R.D., clinical dietitian and author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™”

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