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Dr. Garth Graham Headshot

Combat Obesity With Increased Access to Nutritious Foods: Think Globally, Start Locally

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If you've walked the streets of New York's five boroughs recently, you might have noticed a new kind of street vendor setting up shop. In certain poor neighborhoods, these vendors are stocking kiosks full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Known as Green Carts, the food stands are part of a city-wide program started by the Bloomberg administration in 2008 to make healthy food more accessible to low-income populations. The effort worked even better than expected: grocery shops, bodegas and convenience stores in neighborhoods where the Green Carts were introduced began stocking more and better fresh produce on their shelves. The Green Carts in New York opened up the market for nutritious food for residents who previously had little to no access.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 40 percent of NYC school children from kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight or obese. That's more than 250,000 kids! With data like this, it is clear that programs like Green Carts are desperately needed to help change health outcomes for our youth. On a national level, it is well documented that people in poor and minority communities are far more likely to be obese and suffer from obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. Many of these individuals face the paradoxical issue of being food insecure and eating too much of the wrong foods. Buying food that is cheap and lacking in nutrition contributes greatly to the public health crisis facing countless Americans as well as individuals around the world.

So the question is: How do we make healthy food affordable and accessible for everyone? One of the answers is go local. And by that I mean finding and supporting the local community programs that are making a positive difference in people's diet and eating habits.

Recently, the Aetna Foundation sponsored an international meeting on global health and wellness that brought together 100 of the most notable experts on obesity and chronic disease from the United States and around the world. The gathering was hosted by the International Association for the Study of Obesity and its policy group, the International Obesity TaskForce.

As experts discussed efforts that were showing success, I was struck by the ability of community-based programs to change people's health and their lives -- family by family and neighborhood by neighborhood.

Take, for example, the "Double Up Food Bucks" program from the Fair Food Network. This program began as a pilot project at five Detroit farmers' markets in 2009 and has since expanded to over 90 markets throughout Michigan. The program allows SNAP recipients to shop at a participating farmers' market and matches the amount that they spend on their SNAP Bridge Card up to $20 per visit with Double Up Food Bucks, which can be used to purchase Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.

FreshDirect, an online supermarket delivery service in New York City, recently received approval from the USDA to conduct a pilot program in which they accept SNAP benefits in two low-income zip codes in the South Bronx. If successful, such a program has the potential to greatly reduce so-called "food deserts" and can be adapted by online grocers nationwide.

Another effort gaining traction is run by the nonprofit organization Triskeles, near Philadelphia. The group built 160 community gardens where volunteers grow and then donate 10,000 pounds of vegetables each year to local food pantries, ensuring a steady supply of free, fresh produce for people in need. As a result, many who would previously have been hungry or forced to rely on cheap but non-nutritious foods now have access to fresh, healthy produce.

These efforts, supported by grants from the Aetna Foundation that focus on evaluation, are just a sampling of what's happening in communities across the country to help increase access to healthier food options. By creating, supporting and seeking out organizations like these on a global scale, we can create healthier lifestyles and work to make nutritious food easier to access and cheaper to buy.