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Obesity epidemic may not be related to supermarket scarcity

Fast food has long been imagined to be the main culprit for childhood obesity.
Fast food has long been imagined to be the main culprit for childhood obesity.
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A new study from the Rand Corporation is calling into question something many of us accepted as true: When children live in neighborhoods with too much fast food and too few grocery stores, obesity rates rise. Increase access to healthy foods, and obesity rates will decrease.

However, the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Roland Sturm of Rand examined data from over 13,000 California children between the ages of 5 and 17 years old. What he found was that children who live in neighborhoods that are dense with fast food and small food stores are not necessarily heavier than children that live closer to large supermarkets.

This is similar in some ways to other recent findings, including a study from the University of North Carolina that found that just living near grocery stores and the healthy fare they provide doesn’t result in lower levels of obesity. But in that study proximity to fast food was found to be a corollary to obesity.

The relationship between obesity and lack of access to good food seemed obvious, not just to researchers but to policy makers as well. Here in southern California it was used to pass legislation limiting the number of fast food restaurants that could be built in poorer areas and incentivize grocery chains to build there instead. But, according to Sturm of the Rand Corporation there is no relationship between the food environment a child lives or goes to school in and the food they eat.

Is this the last word on the subject? Is what we thought knew about obesity rates and food access really wrong? If it is, what impact will that have on policy makers? And, if access to grocery stores isn’t the answer to our obesity problem…what is?


Roland Sturm, Senior Economist, The RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Director of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and County Health Officer