Columbia's food desert status may have little affect on health

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COLUMBIA - Food deserts do not have as much of an effect on obesity rates, according to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control.

In this month's issue of "Preventing Chronic Disease," researchers studied food deserts and having access to healthy food options. They found simply having access to healthy food did not mean there was an increase in people consuming healthier foods or having a lower body mass index.

Instead, having a lower body mass index depended on a person's choices in the grocery store. 

Parts of downtown Columbia are considered to be a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Columbia resident JoAnn Shull said her family had adapted a whole foods lifestyle. Her 15-month-old son has never had processed foods.

"When we first started figuring out what we wanted to feed our son, my husband and I really did a re-education of what to look for and what was actually considered healthy and real food," Shull said.

In 2013, obesity rates in Missouri were above 30 percent, according to the CDC. 

Nutritionist Jessica Coad said obesity is a problem for people in mid-Missouri. She says her patients struggle with making healthy food choices as well as affording healthy food. 

"I feel like people just need to take more time. If they can't afford it, they just need to take more time looking. It's easier for people to purchase frozen food and fast food," Coad said.

Lucky's store director Andy Weis said his store offers aggressive advertisements, especially for their produce, to make healthy food more affordable.

"I think if people really want to find a healthy alternative, they'll find that store and they'll find ways to get there," Weis said.  

The USDA defines a food desert as:

  • "To qualify as a ‘low-income community,' a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher."
  • "To qualify as a ‘low-access community,' at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."

Schull said she thinks Columbia has done a better job of creating healthier food options within the last couple years. She said Columbia could do more in terms of educating people on healthier food choices. 

"I think individuals need to make it a priority to learn. I think grocery stores need to make it easier for people to buy healthy foods...and I think the government has to do a better job of making sure food labels are accurate," Shull said.