The Devastating Consequences of Unequal Food Access

Access and diabetes rates. We found statistically significant correlations between food access and diabetes rates: greater access to healthy food is associated with lower diabetes rates, while greater access to unhealthy food is associated with higher diabetes rates.
— - Union of Concerned Scientist's Report

According to a recent study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Diabetes rates in the United States have nearly quadrupled over the past three decades. About 30 million Americans currently suffer from diabetes, and nearly 95 percent of these cases are type 2 diabetes, the diet-related form of the disease." The study warns that if these trends continue, nearly one-third of Americans could be diabetic by the year 2050. The impact on the cost of healthcare let alone on individuals and families, will be devastating.

The study points out that diets low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—decrease the risk for type 2 diabetes.  But the problem a families access to healthy food. This includes how close they are to supermarkets and farmer's markets, transportation to those places, their affordability and, last but not least, the cultural taste preferences of a particular community.

The study further points to rising diabetes rates having hit particularly hard in African American, Latino, and Native American communities. Their rates of diabetes are twice as likely as whites AND they suffer higher mortality rates and much higher complications than the overall population.

(Photo: Paul Sableman/Creative Commons (Flickr) from UCS article--see link below)


(Photo: Paul Sableman/Creative Commons (Flickr) from UCS article--see link below)

Study looked at physical location and diabetes

UCS looked at the most recent publicly available county-level data on retail food stores, food access, health outcomes, food insecurity, and socioeconomic composition. Counties were categorized according to racial or economic composition:  higher- vs. lower-than-average percentages of residents of color, and higher vs. lower income.

The study defined "healthy food retailers" as grocery stores, supercenters, farmers markets, and specialized food stores such as bakeries, meat and seafood markets, dairy stores, and produce markets, all of which reliably offer fresh and less-processed foods. "Unhealthy food retailers" were defined to include fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which offer a more limited selection of food centered on highly processed convenience items.

The study's findings confirmed what many other studies have in the past suggested:

Access, race, and income. "Counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color have both fewer healthy food retailers and more unhealthy food retailers. Lower-income counties had more unhealthy food retailers than higher-income counties, but the study found no difference by income in the number of healthy food retailers."

Access and diabetes rates. "We found statistically significant correlations between food access and diabetes rates: greater access to healthy food is associated with lower diabetes rates, while greater access to unhealthy food is associated with higher diabetes rates."

Proximity to healthy food has a bigger impact in communities of color: :The correlation between food access and diabetes rates is stronger in communities of color: both the positive effect of greater access to healthy food and the negative effect of greater access to unhealthy food were significantly larger than the national average in counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color."

The study's recommendations are not, as they say, rocket science.

  • Increase access to health food, which will reduce diabetes rates
  • Increase the number of retailers in "food deserts" which provide fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Change nutrition assistance programs to provide a great emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Institute culturally-appropriate education programs to encourage healthier eating (school meal programs being one of them)
  • Create a comprehensive national food policy as a first step in transforming the way we feed the poor.

Of course, Gemma's Angels is doing our part. Our newest mission involves education programs for at-risk children and families to emphasize healthier eating, including fresh fruit and vegetables. On our wish list is an "All-Kids Mobile Farmer's Market" where our soon-to-be in service Veggie Van would make stops at schools, food banks, summer camps and wherever children are.

Kids would get onboard our Veggie Van and with backpacks in hand, load up on the fruit and veggies they prefer and take them home. The upside is that they will be more apt to eat the produce they choose, be excited about eating healthier and share that excitement with their families.

Gemma's Angels is currently looking for pilot sites and funding sponsors for the program.

Associated link to the study: http://www.ucsusa.org/food-agriculture/expand-healthy-food-access/unequal-food-access-race-income-diabetes#.VxoQn2PN7uV