Food deserts and diabetes

Every once in awhile I like to do a little research on the intersection between diabetes and other socioeconomic/environmental factors (my background is in human geography and anthropology…please excuse me while I geek out a bit). One thing I’ve become interested in lately is the correlation between type 2 diabetes, poverty and inequality. I know it doesn’t relate to my personal diabetes management, per se, but I still find it important as an emerging diabetes advocate to educate myself about such issues. There are a lot of misconceptions about the different causes and factors affecting this disease…I won’t argue that living in a food desert increases your chances of getting type 2 diabetes, but, in my opinion your access to adequate nutrition and efficient, low-cost transportation can at least affect one’s ability to manage diabetes. The same could be said for access to economic opportunities, healthcare and other social services.

Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.

What inspired me to write about this particular topic was an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled “For diabetes patients, oases in the food desert.” The article talks about initiatives to address the food desert issue in North Chicago. A variety of programs target under-served type 2 diabetic populations in this part of the city, providing diabetes care and education. One such program teaches diabetics how to shop for healthy food when all they have access to is a corner store, and also helped established community gardens. Another program offers “prescriptions” for healthy foods that are redeemable at Walgreens (one of the program sponsors). Getting small, local stores involved (yay!), another program assists markets like Mi Mexico find distributors that can deliver healthier food items.

So it’s great that these programs empower people to use the resources at their disposal and  support local business in the process – but that’s only part of the picture. To its credit, this article also acknowledges that simply bringing supermarkets to an area will not eliminate issue of making eating healthy accessible AND affordable. Regardless of who’s selling it, bottom line is cost. I love this tidbit that was quoted in the article:

“Calorie-dense food may seem less expensive if you don’t take into account food volume and weight,” said Rasa Kazlauskaite, an assistant professor in the preventive medicine and internal medicine departments at Rush University Medical Center. “If you approach it by volume, a bag of vegetables is cheaper than a candy bar. You get more for your money, can eat a lot and it’s not bad for you.”

Interesting way of looking at it, I think.

I was curious about the food desert problem in my part of Richmond because where I live is on the border with another poorer part of town. To my knowledge, the latter area is somewhat of a food desert – the few times I’ve driven through it I have never seen any sort of large supermarket. The closest one is the supermarket directly behind my apartment. This chain store actually offers van service which will pick you up and take you to and from the supermarket. Not sure if the program is free or not, but at least it’s an alternative. The CDC also has a tool to look up stats for your county: the Food Environment Atlas. The data is a bit old (2006-2009 range for Richmond), but it at least gives you an idea of the “food landscape” in your area. I learned that the City of Richmond has 3,763 households without a car that have a distance of greater than one mile to travel to the nearest supermarket (4.4% of households in the city). I’m no expert, but for a city of Richmond’s size, that seems like a lot. I queried the data for Lake County, Illinois, which is mentioned in the article, and found that 2,866 households (1.29%) there do not have a car and are more than a mile away from a supermarket. Of course, I’m not familiar with the other variables at play that would account for the difference…but based on sheer numbers, that seems pretty remarkable to me.

For someone who has the luxury of walking out her back door to pick up her fruits and veggies (when I buy them, that is!), it’s hard to fathom what it must be like to be a diabetic in a food desert. It’s encouraging to see that other parts of the country are trying to tackle such problems, but it also reminds me of just how much effort it would take to see such initiatives take root in my own community.


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