Obesity: What you eat and where you live matters

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Location can affect food choice options

At the corner of Lansing’s Mt. Hope and Pattengill avenues is a Quality Dairy, a Rite Aid and a liquor store.

What’s missing is a supermarket.

There used to be one here. An L&L. The neighbors loved it – so much so that when the company closed its doors earlier this year, the homeowners wrote letters of complaint.

Other L&L sites quickly were snatched up by competing grocers and reopened under new names.

This one did not, and a few months later, it’s already a sad sight.

The empty parking lot is mangy with weeds. The only reminders of its former life are the shaded outlines of the letters on its sign.

Its absence also is changing the shopping habits of some nearby residents – such as Anna Sirko.

She says she now has fewer options for feeding her two children when time is tight – just the small produce bin at Quality Dairy unless she wants to drive to the nearest supermarket – on Holmes Road.

That’s not always convenient for her during the week.

“It’s a pain,” Sirko said, standing outside Quality Dairy with a bag of wheat bread. “Now I sometimes just decide, ‘Well, I guess I don’t need that tomato.’ ”

Her choice.

But society’s problem?

That’s a question at the center of a growing anti-obesity strategy that some say squarely pits public policy against personal responsibility.

It asks: Of all the myriad reasons and complications that have plagued Michigan and the nation with a skyrocketing obesity rate, do they simply all boil down to what we choose to eat?

Experts say yes. And no.

While ultimately individuals decide what to eat every day, said Katherine Knoll, chairwoman of the Healthy Kids Healthy Michigan campaign, their choices may be limited or swayed by where they live.

In other words, you might not only be WHAT you eat, but WHERE you eat.

“It’s one thing to say you need to eat five fruits and vegetables a day or to have pediatricians say your child needs them,” Knoll said. “But when you go out in your community and you don’t have access to that in a simple and quick fashion so that it becomes the readily available option, that makes it harder to implement.”

The accepted link between diet and weight, of course, is not new. What is new, however, is the effort to reduce obesity by improving the so-called food environments in which people live.

It may be one of the only anti-obesity strategies in which Michigan – with its unsavory status as the 10th-fattest state in the nation – is actually ahead of the game.

In the past few years, the state has begun offering tax breaks to grocery stores for locating in underserved areas, created a statewide food policy council, funneled grant money into urban gardens and farmers’ markets and piloted projects in several communities to help convenience stores offer more fruits and vegetables.

Plus, a project out of Michigan State University called the Good Food Charter has established a plan for 20 percent of the food consumed in Michigan to be grown in Michigan by 2020.

However, advocates for improving food access are up against an inconvenient problem: No one is sure if it will work.

Even if we make it easier for people to buy healthy foods, that’s no guarantee they will eat them. A recent study, in fact, suggests that they don’t.

“It’s not as simple as it seems,” said Janne Boone- Heinonen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Oregon.

She was part of a 15-year study at the University of North Carolina that was released last month that showed little improvement in people’s eating habits when they lived near supermarkets.

“What our findings emphasize is that there is no magic bullet to reducing obesity and improving diet,” she said. “The availability of healthy foods is important, but our study suggests that’s not sufficient.”

Addressing the issue

Michigan’s effort so far has focused on areas where healthy food is hardest to come by – areas called “food deserts” because they lack supermarkets and grocery stores or other fresh food outlets.

A recent report by the Ingham County Health Department identified more than 16,000 people in Lansing and East Lansing alone who live in classic food deserts.

On a hot day in the middle of July, Sara Filius hunkers down in one of them.

She tends to row upon row of tomatoes, zucchini, squash and dozens of other fresh crops.

They’re growing out of the dirt in an old vacant lot on South Hayford Street. It’s surrounded by a rusty chain-link fence, and the lot reportedly was once a hiding spot for stolen goods.

The hum of I-496 fills the neighborhood with a steady urban soundtrack. It doesn’t bother Filius. In fact, it’s a daily reminder to her of how cool this thing really is.

It’s called the Urbandale Farm, and it’s the first community garden launched by a partnership between a nonprofit called the Lansing Urban Farm Project and the Ingham County Land Bank.

Their goal: To turn vacant lots in the city’s food deserts into gardens where residents can grow their own produce or buy fresh vegetables.

The Urbandale neighborhood is a sort of no-man’s land for fresh food.

It’s too far away from the Frandor Kroger for residents without cars to walk, and there are no corner stores or other food outlets that sell fresh produce.

Not until the garden came along last summer.

This year, there’s a run on broccoli, and kids in the neighborhood go door-to-door selling fresh vegetables once a week.

“This is an area where people can’t necessarily get out to the grocery store every day or very easily,” said Filius, who works for the Lansing nonprofit. “And this is not a neighborhood where we can build a grocery store. We have enough demand that this winter, we’re going to put up a hoop house so we can continue to grow year-round.”

One neighborhood. One solution.

That’s the approach supported by a growing body of research on how to solve the problem of food deserts.

“Not every community can support a grocery store nor can every store be the best option for healthy foods,” said Mildred Thompson, director of the Center for Health and Place at PolicyLink, a national research group that produced a report last year about solutions to food deserts. “Every community needs to figure out what will work for them and what they need.”

Initiatives under way

Michigan is trying to cover all the bases, said Diane Golzynski, fruit and vegetable nutrition coordinator with the Michigan Department of Community Health.

The state has nearly tripled the number of farmers’ markets in the past 10 years – from 90 to more than 250.

At the same time, the Department of Community Health has tapped four counties to draft five-year vision plans for dealing with food deserts in their regions.

Ingham County was one of those selected because it has had a local food policy council since 2001.

“Ingham County was one of the first in the nation to recognize the link between health and local land use and planning,” said Janine Sinno, health analyst with the Ingham County Health Department.

The county’s plan calls for a 2 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption in Lansing’s food deserts – from 16.8 percent to 18.8 percent – by September 2014.

They hope to achieve that by finding ways to add more farmers markets and community gardens while also helping convenience store and small grocery owners to stock healthier foods.

The city and county also want to lure a full-scale grocery store back to food desert areas, but that’s a more long-term project, Sinno said.

Case in point: In 2009, Michigan lawmakers enacted a new law offering tax incentives to supermarket chains for opening in underserved areas. It was considered an innovative approach – one of the first in the country.

Two years later, how many have been built?

Not a single one.

“Grocery stores are expensive,” said Thompson of PolicyLink. “It’s not something that can happen overnight.”

The effort nationwide got a huge boost recently when first lady Michelle Obama announced that her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has drawn commitments from several major grocery retailers – including Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Supervalu – to locate in underserved areas.

There’s no word yet how many of those – if any – will be in Michigan.

Taking responsibility

Still, some wonder if this should be the government’s responsibility at all.

“Everyone wants to blame someone else but themselves for obesity,” said J. Justin Wilson, an analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a think-tank founded by a former food industry lobbyist. “Everyone looks for a victim. It was personal irresponsibility that got us into this.”

Advocates say doubters like Wilson are at least partially right. Food access won’t solve the obesity crisis alone.

“We’re a society that looks for a magic pill,” said Golzynski of the Michigan Department of Community Health. “We’re not going to see a huge difference in consumption in two years. That’s hard to accept, but I accept it. This is going to take time, education and patience.”

But Filius says she has seen it work first-hand in the Urbandale garden.

Neighbors slowly wander by, just curious at first, she says. Some eventually offer to volunteer. Others just want to buy what’s there.

She lights up at the story of one little girl who likes to buy something new each week and cook it for the volunteers.

She once boiled green beans and lettuce together and brought the soggy concoction over, excited for them to try it.

It didn’t taste very good, Filius admits, but that isn’t important.

“I think what’s exciting,” she says, “is that that little girl is so excited about fresh, healthy food.”

Heavy burden

Michigan is the only state above the Mason-Dixon line to be among the 10 fattest states in the nation. The growing obesity epidemic affects nearly every level of government and society and costs the state billions of dollars.

LSJ Media will spend the next several months examining how we got so big and what needs to be done to lose the weight.

This is the second in a series addressing the obesity epidemic in Michigan. Find videos, healthy recipes and more resources at www.lsj.com/obesemichigan.

Source:  LansingStateJournal.com>>

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