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Are We There Yet? Fast Food To Healthy Food Ratios

Editor's Note: The health effects of air pollution and the need to take action are well understood. Not as well understood is the impact of healthy food options on the well-being of Americans. This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? looks at the need to put the ratio of fast food outlets to healthy food options as a priority community concern.

It’s ironic that rural communities – which often are surrounded by farmland —rank so high on the list of food deserts. The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found in 2008 that in California — where agriculture is a major industry — the average California adult lives near four times as many fast-food restaurants and convenience stores as grocery stores and produce vendors. This ratio of “fast food to healthy food” is becoming a benchmark used to assess the need for change in communities. See graphic below: Top 10 regions with the worst ratio of fast food to healthy food options.

“The point that this study makes is that we can’t just look at issues of weight as a personal choice,” says Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County’s public health director told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “We are affected by our environment. We understand that when we’re talking about air quality, but we forget that it also affects what we eat.”

In 1999, the study in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, (“Supermarket Access in the Inner City”) found the city of Philadelphia had the second fewest supermarkets per capita of any major U.S. city. Two years later, the state of Pennsylvania created a public-private Fresh Food Financing Initiative that has helped build 88 new grocery stores in 34 counties, including 26 in Philadelphia – with the added benefit that 5,000 new jobs were created.

Top 10 regions with the worst ratio of fast food to healthy food optionsThis success has led other states to experiment with similar initiatives, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a national fresh food financing initiative that could include federal tax credits, below-market-rate loans, loan guarantees and grants to attract private investment in grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers markets in neighborhoods that don’t have them.

But a big supermarket isn’t the answer for every community. Some worry that big-box stores will take sales and jobs away from existing locally-owned businesses, and they are concerned about the traffic that big stores attract and the fact that communities have little control over the quality or sourcing of produce.

“What we need,” Gary Nabhan and Kelly Watters wrote on the online magazine Grist in 2011, is “tangible support for rebuilding the rural and urban infrastructure that can enable more marketing of fresh, local foods by farmers, orchard keepers, and ranchers directly to neighboring consumers. The lack of a big-box store in our community may be an asset — not a disadvantage — in keeping our children healthy and food secure.”

On the way thereOklahoma City Goes On A Diet

Mayor Mick Cornett is an Oklahoma City native and popular former sports broadcaster who garnered a record high 87.6 percent of the vote in his 2006 re-election. That was just about the time Oklahoma City began showing up on rankings of the fattest U.S.cities (at No. 7), and when he stepped on the scale he found that, at 217 pounds, he was part of the problem. So he began to diet and decided to also start a public conversation. “I came up with this stunt of putting the city on a diet,” he told Governing magazine. “I went to the zoo, stood in front of the elephants, and said, ‘We’re going to lose a million pounds.’” The mayor lost 40 pounds but the city did even better — as of mid-2011 residents lost almost 900,000.

In the process of losing weight the mayor pondered the city’s predicament.

“We had an automobile-centric culture, a drive-through restaurant mentality,” he told Governing. “We hadn’t built a pedestrian-friendly community.” So the mayor came up with a bold $777 million plan to remake the city as walkable and urban, with an extensive new streetcar system, sidewalks throughout the city, a 60-mile network of bicycle trails and walking paths, a new 70-acre park downtown and a new convention center — all of it funded by the extension of an existing one-cent sales tax. “We’re trying to change the culture of the community from an infrastructure standpoint,” says Mayor Cornett, “from a community where life revolves around the car to one where life revolves around people.”

Oklahoma City voters have renewed their sales tax several times in order to continue funding major projects, which have all been paid for before completion and not incurred additional debt.

Sportlight On Boulder, Colorado

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