Does the availability of certain types of grocers affect the health and obesity of a population?

The April edition of the American Dietetic Association Journal published a study examining the potential association between obesity and per capita farmers’ markets, grocery stores or supermarkets, and supercenters in different US counties.

The researchers, who are professors of geography, public health medicine, and nutrition at both East Carolina University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that supercenters and grocery stores per capita were inversely associated with obesity in both rural and urban areas. They also found that farmers’ markets were not significant in the overall rural and urban combined numbers, but were significantly inversely related to obesity rates in non-metro, rural areas. They concluded that generally, the density of food venues was inversely associated with county-level obesity prevalence. They didn’t draw conclusions about obesity at the individual level.

So what does this mean to a nutritionist and a culinary student? Because I advocated for farmers’ markets and greater involvement of the agricultural community in Pueblo schools, I have hoped for evidence that farmers’ markets have significant positive impact on their communities. While this study isn’t the Holy Grail that we can uphold as proof that every community needs farmers’ markets, we can show that farmers’ markets have as positive of an impact as larger grocers do, because they contribute to the inverse relationship between obesity and the density of grocers. That means, the more available grocery stores are to a population, the lower the county-level incidences of obesity. It also means that areas where few grocers are available, the obesity rate could be higher.

Choices and selection are what consumers seek, and manufacturers seek ways to increase choice and selection often. What used to be a relatively straightforward task of selecting Cheerios for breakfast has now become a label-reading, box-comparing adventure of deciding on flavors, whole grain benefits, size, and color of your different Cheerios options. I don’t seek to disparage the creativity and the selection; I feel that I benefit from it. But I also recognize that there are communities and dense urban areas where only one or two stores, one of which may be a convenience store attached to a gas station, serve a population. The customers here have a much more limited selection, and they may not be given the same access to fresh produce, recent manufacturer creations, or even healthier selections. It is these under-served populations that need our help.

It’s great that grocery store density improves obesity, so let’s get more food access to more individuals!

How can you help?