The urban desert

July 23, 2006

Poverty is not just costly, it's downright unhealthy. This year, University of Michigan researchers found that poor minority areas in Baltimore and Baltimore County have far fewer healthy food options than more-affluent communities. Relatively few large supermarkets, with their huge inventories of fresh fruit and vegetables, were located in predominantly black neighborhoods compared with wealthier white areas. And this turns out to be more than just an inconvenience.

In a report released this past week, a researcher looked at what was termed the "food deserts" of Chicago's South and West Sides to explore their impact on residents' health. She concluded that the hundreds of thousands of people living far from healthful groceries - but often quite near fast-food and junk-food outlets - are put at much greater risk of serious illness.

The fact that people living in poverty are more likely to have health problems is well established. Substandard living conditions, less access to quality health care, and other economic, educational, cultural and social realities of these urban neighborhoods may also play a role.

But the study suggests a significant correlation between access to good nutrition and public health, and that's likely just as true in Baltimore as it is in Chicago. Looking at neighborhoods block by block, researcher Mari Gallagher found that on a typical African-American corner, the distance to a grocery store was twice as far as to a fast-food restaurant. And she found people living in such a neighborhood far more likely to suffer from potentially nutrition-related disorders such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

It's not enough to teach people about nutrition - at least not when wholesome foods are not readily available while high-fat, high-sodium and sugary alternatives are. Unless this fundamental problem is addressed, there's little chance of anyone finding a healthy oasis amid the deserts.

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