By Dr. Eduardo Sanchez and Bobby Jenkins
Texas families — many residing in neighborhoods just a short distance from our prosperous downtown area — grocery shopping and accessing healthy, affordable food is harder than it should be. In the city of Austin specifically, thousands of Austinites have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
The science is clear that people who live in areas with inadequate access to grocery stores suffer from diet-related deaths at a higher rate than that of the population as a whole. The consequences are particularly stark for people in low-income neighborhoods, where research shows a link between high obesity rates and lack of access to fresh, wholesome food.
Obesity continues to be a critical problem throughout Texas. Roughly one out of three Texas adults are obese. The obesity rate within greater Austin is 25 percent. One out of five Texas children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese. These are children who are at increased risk for a lifetime of costly diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Besides the devastating personal and health care costs for families, the Texas comptroller projected in 2011 that by 2030, obesity would cost Texas businesses $32.5 billion per year if no action was taken. While access to healthy food alone will not end the epidemic, leading public health experts agree that the availability of nutritious and affordable food is a key factor in the development of healthy children and adults.
People in neighborhoods without easy access to supermarkets often buy food for their meals at convenient stores or corner stores. These stores often cannot offer fresh food options, and their inventory mainly consists of highly processed, nonperishable foods — typically high in calories, fat and sodium and low in nutritional quality. Almost 69,000 people in Travis County live in low-income communities with limited supermarket access — and with no convenient and affordable source of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein. Access to healthy food options could be just around the corner.
Healthy corner store initiatives in cities across the country are helping change the food retail environment in areas underserved by traditional supermarkets. By enabling the store on the corner to improve their offerings, promote good nutrition and increase healthy food sales, these establishments can have a positive impact on the health of Austinites. Healthy corner store programs successfully encourage and provide retail and technical assistance to corner stores to help them market and sell healthier foods. By leveraging these existing small business resources in our underserved communities, access to healthy food can be right around the corner in all our Austin neighborhoods, while encouraging small-business growth and contributing to community revitalization.
Every family should have access to the foods that help support a healthy, balanced diet and, ultimately, a healthier life. While access alone will not assure healthy eating choices, no one can make a healthy choice when a healthy choice is not available.
The city of Austin can take the lead in addressing the critical need for improved healthy food retail in its underserved communities. We call upon city and county governments in Austin to support policies that increase access to fresh, healthy foods by investing public funds in a healthy corner store initiative. It is vital that we increase affordable healthy food options in corner stores in our community. Not only will it help to improve the health of our neighbors, but it will also strengthen the economic well-being of our community. Read the original Op-ed here.
Sanchez serves as chief medical officer for prevention for the American Heart Association and is the former Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. Jenkins serves as president for the American Heart Association’s Capital Area Division board of directors.