Monday, November 17, 2014

Hunger games: Low-income residents have less access to healthy options

Looking for healthy food options in New Orleans? Depending on the neighborhood you’re in, you may be out of luck. And that’s unfortunate in a city struggling with high rates of obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity.

At this morning’s session on “Healthography of the Food Environment,” presenter Megan Tulikangas of the Louisiana Public Health Institute talked about the organization’s research on the New Orleans food environment, residents’ access to healthy foods and youth exposure to tobacco, alcohol and junk food marketing. The study comes out of the institute’s Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living. In explaining the connection between the anti-tobacco campaign and food access, Tulikangas noted that examining the impact of the retail environment on community health can’t be limited to just tobacco — you have to look at food and alcohol as well.

Tulikangas told session attendees that much of the study questions focused on the marketing theory known as the Four Ps: product (is it designed to appeal to certain groups?); placement (are ads and products purposefully placed at the eye level or near the register?); price (is the product priced to be affordable to its target audience?); and promotion (is the product promoted in a particular way to appeal to young people?). Of course, Tulikangas noted that “not all marketing is equal.” For example, tobacco companies specifically target youth and minorities, and food ads targeting kids are more likely to promote high-fat, sugary products.

To conduct the study, teams of data collectors spread out across the city, collecting information and surveying storeowners in Orleans Parish. They ended up visiting 465 retail stores altogether and at every location, teams gathered information on tobacco, alcohol and food (both healthy and unhealthy). The study sample included 424 tobacco outlets, 315 alcohol outlets and only 41 — 41 — locations that sold a selection of healthy food choices. The study was incredibly comprehensive — teams gathered 600 data points for each store.

So, do New Orleans’ minority and low-income neighborhoods experience less access to healthy foods and more exposure to unhealthy marketing? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Session presenter Alexandra Priebe, also with the Louisiana Public Health Institute, reported that low-income neighborhoods were home to more tobacco and alcohol outlets per capita and less access to healthy food choices per capita. For example, people living in minority and low-income neighborhoods would have a pretty easy time finding access to cigarillos. However, they’d have a much harder time finding a place to buy milk, apples or oranges, Priebe reported.

The study also found that local minority and low-income neighborhoods are home to more advertising for unhealthy products (with the exception of high-tourist areas) as well as more ads and product placements specifically designed to appeal to young people. Priebe did report that most store owners said they did feel connected to their communities, but that their retail offerings were limited by customer preference and that most weren’t willing to take an economic loss on fresh produce that may end up rotting on the shelf. A possible solution? Taking a comprehensive approach to building healthier communities that includes both educating residents as well as business owners.

“Changing the (point-of-sale) environment is complex and will require a multi-pronged approach,” Priebe said.

— K.K.

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