Childhood Obesity in Rochester’s Food Swamp

McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are in a race. And while the fast food giants are seeing sky-high profits from recent changes to their menus, it’s local children who are actually losing.

All three have announced meals that combine menu items for lower prices. Wendy’s, taking the lead, introduced fries, a burger, nuggets and a drink for just $4 instead of the normal $8-10 it’d cost for the same meal. In an attempt to outdo the company, Burger King added a fifth item, a cookie, to the line-up but kept the price at $4.

But while the food bundling is resurrecting the fast food giants’ declining products, it’s also contributing Rochester’s murky food swamp where, for many, nutritionally deficient food is more accessible than nutritious options.

37.8 percent of black children in Rochester are overweight or obese, according to a study done by the University of Rochester in 2012. And for Latino children, it’s even worse: 40.1 percent are overweight or obese. And white children are only 1 percent behind black children at 36.9 percent. Overall approximately 38 percent of Monroe County children are overweight or obese.

The study is a repeat of a 2008 study by the University. Little change has taken place since the original study.

Nationally, there have been declines in the childhood obesity rate, though it remains embarrassingly high among other leading nations. According to the Center for Disease Control, Latinos were most likely to be obese (22.4 percent) compared to blacks which was 20.2 percent. Overall, about 17 percent of American children are obese.

“Those are some pretty alarming statistics,” said Dina Faticone, Program Director of the Healthi Kids Initiative.  “The research is clear: fast food is an identified contributor to obesity. But if we’re looking to solve some of the issues, we have some opportunities to do so.”

The first step? Draining Rochester’s food swamp to reduce access to nutritionally-deficient food and improve access to healthier options.

“Start simple. Many are eating fast food on a daily basis. Try replacing one of those meals with something cooked at home.” -Faticone

Rochester has long been classified as a food desert. However, local health experts are disputing this saying that residents do have access to grocery stores and supermarkets but that the nutritionally-deficient food is simply more accessible, whether because of cost, the transportation needed to get the food or the time and work it takes to prepare the food.

In 2009, the USDA published a study measuring access to affordable and nutritious food. The report stated that simply increasing access to healthy food wasn’t enough to encourage better eating habits.

“Travel costs and time costs of acquiring food as well as the time costs of preparing foods are also likely to affect demand for particular foods,” read part of the study. “The convenience of eating restaurant food or a prepared meal versus eating at home may be an important part of demand for food. Even for foods prepared at home, there may be relatively greater time costs than those for prepared foods or takeout foods. Consumers may value the convenience of a fast food or prepared meal more because it does not require spending much time to prepare.”

“How do we drain that food swamp and increase access to nutritious food?” asked Faticone before adding, “There is a sense that kids don’t eat fruits and veggies. But that’s not true based on observations and surveys in schools— particularly about school lunch. They often tell us an ideal school lunch has more variety of fruits and veggies. But they’re picky, so how they’re prepared will determine how they eat them.”

Wendy's Four for $4 allows customers to get more food for cheap but local officials warn this deal may be more harmful than helpful.

Wendy’s Four for $4 allows customers to get more food for cheap but local officials warn this deal may be more harmful than helpful. Credit: Tianna Mañón.

To “drain” the swamp, a number of health initiatives have been proposed, including the Healthi Kids Initiative through the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency. There is also the Healthy Heroes outreach program and a number of other nonprofit, city, state, county and grassroots initiatives, including a city fruit tree/bush map that lists fruit trees around the city and community gardens.

And nationally, seminars and workshops have been held to reevaluate the role of convenience markets in childhood obesity and food swamps. Convenience markets have a $900 billion annual profit with corner stores measuring even larger. Therefore, increasing healthy options in these stores may allow local families who lack access due to transportation more healthy options.

And these convenience markets and corner stores wouldn’t have to worry about losing inventory, according to Steve French Managing Partner at the National Marketing Institute in a presentation for the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. Since the shelf life of healthy foods tend to be shorter, store managers and owners often choose foods with a lot of preservatives so they don’t have to worry about throwing product away at a loss to them.

More people than ever before are focused on living a healthy life, said French.

He pointed to a study done by the Institute which found that 76 percent of Americans indicated it is extremely/very important to ”lead a healthy, balanced lifestyle” and another 75 percent say eating nutritious food is important to achieving this lifestyle.

Of course, what is defined as healthy differs among people. Some people want low-fat items, other want no genetically modified organism, while still more are simply happy to reduce their sugar intake.

The keys seems to be options at all levels of accessibility: travel, cost and time to prepare. But Faticone added that it’s not just on the shoulders of local store owners to provide options. Families must be willing to put in more work to eat better as well.

“I think one thing people and families can do is start simple,” said Faticone .”If many families are eating fast food on a daily basis. Try replacing one of those meals with something cooked at home. Thinking abut sitting down and eating a meal together. Encourages healthier eating patterns. Getting back to that family meal style if possible. I know a lot of people are working two and three jobs but doing what you can helps.”

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