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Subsidized Supermarkets Lower Obesity Risk for Low-Income Children

Opening more subsidized supermarkets in low-income areas can be an effective way to address obesity risk, especially among most at-risk Hispanic and Black children, an NYU Langone study found.

The establishment of subsidized supermarkets trimmed obesity risk among low-income children residing near those supermarkets, researchers at NYU Langone Health found, shining a light on how access to newer supermarkets can help remove healthy eating barriers.

Some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods often lack convenient places that offer affordable, nutritious foods. 

The Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program was designed to establish and maintain grocery stores in underserved areas of New York City. The city offered a tax incentive to renovate or build nearly two dozen supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods as a part of the FRESH initiative.

After a FRESH supermarket opened, researchers analyzed body weight measurements for more than 22,000 students in kindergarten through high school who lived within a mile or more of the FRESH supermarkets. 

Within a year after opening the renovated or new supermarkets, obesity rates fell from 24.3 percent to 23.3 percent among children living within a half mile of the subsidized markets.

Students in kindergarten through grade eight experienced a greater decline in obesity risk scores than students in grades nine through 12.

This could be attributed to the fact that teenagers have more freedom and traditionally more funds to spend on other food options such as snack food at bodegas or fast-food restaurants, study lead investigator and epidemiologist Pasquale E. Rummo, PhD, MPH, explained.

The markets were also linked to a decrease in BMI scores, a measure of body weight based on height for each age group by gender. Students who resided within a half mile of a FRESH supermarket had a BMI reduction between 4 percent and 10 percent.

“These results, however small, demonstrate that supermarket subsidies might play an effective role in addressing the complex problem of childhood obesity in America, especially among our most at-risk Hispanic and Black children,” study senior investigator Brian D. Elbel, PhD, MPH, a professor in the Departments of Population Health and Medicine at NYU Langone said in the press release.

Despite the small changes, if part of a comprehensive policy approach, government-subsidized supermarkets could impact the lives of 4 million American children estimated to have obesity.

If tailored to minority or low-income communities, the program could reduce disparities in childhood obesity as its prevalence is disproportionately higher among Black and Hispanic children.

“Our study highlights that one in four New York City public school kids sampled, predominantly Hispanic and Black, is obese, a worrisome sign of the depth of the problem facing children’s health in the city,” said Rummo, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health. “Childhood obesity is strongly linked to long-term risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.”

Further research looking at the health effects of other supermarket-based incentives, such as discounted prices for fruits and vegetables, and whether these subsidies increase their consumption and impact obesity rates are underway, Ebel stated.

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