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New study shows eating healthy is more about preferences 

Corner store conundrum

When I was in fourth grade, my family lived in a food desert. I don't think we knew it at the time. The term "food desert" hadn't even been coined yet, but that's what it was: an area where the only stores within walking distance had few healthy choices.

We walked to the corner store about once a week. It had everything my 9-year-old palate dreamed of — Cookie Crisp cereal, Pepsi, peanut butter with the jelly mixed in, frozen pizza — but my mom wouldn't even buy the bread because it wasn't whole wheat. All we ever had in our kitchen was a can of corn, a can of tuna and if we were lucky, some eggs.

Being poor had something to do with our lack of stock in the pantry. My single mom was working two minimum-wage jobs, while putting herself through school and raising two girls. Money was tight, but she could've bought us a $1 pack of hot dogs for lunch, no problem. She just refused to buy unhealthy food because it's not what she had grown up with and she was educated on its damaging effects.

It turns out, the food choices we make are less about accessibility and more about preferences.

According to a 2010 Mecklenburg County Community Food Assessment from UNCC, Charlotte has 60 food deserts, with nearly 73,000 people living in them. Almost all of them are in low- to moderate-income areas, including parts of the Beatties Ford Road corridor and neighborhoods along West Sugar Creek Road. The report showed people living in these areas were more likely to face heart disease and premature death. In 2014, Walk Score, a blog that ranks how conducive American cities are to healthy habits, placed Charlotte the third worst in the U.S. for food access.

In recent years, there have been a great deal of efforts to bring people in these areas fresh produce. Many organizations have planted and sponsored community gardens. Nonprofits have been established that are dedicated solely to eradicating the accessibility problem in our city. One of them, Sow Much Good, received national media recognition for its urban farm-based endeavors. Several mobile produce markets make rounds in these areas, offering "pay-what-you-can" or heavily discounted produce.

In March, the N.C. General Assembly also joined the fight with new proposed legislation that would help corner stores across the state stock fresh food and other healthy options. The bipartisan bills in the House and Senate (HB250/SB296) would allocate $1 million in funds for refrigeration units, shelving and other costs associated with stocking nutrient-dense foods.

New York City tried a similar government-funded retail expansion program in 2011. It was successful in improving access to fresh produce, but a study of the program released in February by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that despite the new access to healthier foods, area citizens' diets didn't change. The research showed that food purchasing and consumption habits were linked more to preferences, costs and education than simply accessibility.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research published last month found that nationwide, no more than one-tenth of the variation in people's diets could be attributed to what foods were in their neighborhood stores. Education was the most predictive factor in people's purchasing habits — more than location or income. Those with higher education levels chose healthier foods and those with less education chose the opposite, even if they lived in higher income areas with more healthy options.

This helps explain why my mom, who had gone to college on a full scholarship, insisted on only buying the three to five healthy items in our neighborhood store, even when it meant less food on hand for our family.

So what makes N.C. lawmakers think investing a million dollars into small food retailers is going to make a significant impact when they continue to gut our educational system? (Right now, the state is ranked 48th in the nation on per-pupil spending and 47th in teacher pay.)

The bills' language points to the aforementioned efforts of community groups as proof investing in stores is a good move, stating, "Community programs that work with these small food retailers have shown promise in increasing healthy food sales, improving store offerings, and promoting good nutrition."

Pilot programs from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have shown mixed results. One program gave families a $24 voucher for farmers' markets, and many of the vouchers went unused. However, another voucher program aimed at seniors had an 89 percent redemption rate. When they surveyed participants, 81 percent reported they'd eaten more fresh produce because of the program.

It appears there's promise for North Carolina's older citizens, but how do we get young people choosing healthier options they have newfound access to?

Brian "Cataclysm" Williams, a vegan chef who provides outreach to kids in low-access areas, says he's seen success with interactive events for kids and their parents: "... community workshops, classes, cooking demonstrations, things like that. These kids walk in and want nothing to do with beets or kale or broccoli, but when we show them how easy it can be to flip it and turn it into a beautiful, colorful recipe, they're very enthusiastic about trying the dishes. And when they participate in the preparation, they lobby their parents to try it and to buy the ingredients to make it at home."

The 2010 UNCC report suggested that improving "the availability" of healthy food products in low-access areas might "benefit the health of citizens residing in these communities." But without the state also investing in proper education, as recent data reveals, that's unlikely.

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