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Joanne Goldblum Headshot

Living in a Diaper Desert

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A new study by Rice University researchers finds that children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be obese. The link between poverty and obesity has shown up in many studies. What's different about this research is that the neighborhood itself, rather than the family's economic status, is singled out. Author Justin Denney, a Rice sociologist, explains:

We know there are characteristics specific to families and individual children that are associated with obesity. Those relationships are pretty well understood at this point, but less well understood are community influences, such as the social and demographic characteristics of the places people live. Neighborhood poverty is associated with childhood obesity above and beyond the poverty status of the child's family and other individual and family characteristics. This tells us there is something about the community that is also influencing childhood obesity.

In poor neighborhoods, residents pay higher prices for lower quality food. Here's an interesting exercise: Go to Google Maps and type in the zip code of the poorest neighborhood in your area. Then use the "search nearby" function to look for supermarkets. You'll find convenience stores, delis and so on. My guess is that you won't find many places to buy broccoli. Certainly, you won't see the kind of competition that spurs the supermarket price wars that can lead to great sales on products like chicken breasts and bags of apples in suburban neighborhoods. That's why many urban areas are referred to as "food deserts."

There are some admirable programs, such as urban farmer's markets, under way to bring healthy food to poor neighborhoods. We also need to start thinking about "diaper deserts."

Many parents buy their diapers at warehouse clubs, where they are most affordable. But to get that good deal, they need a car, a nearby warehouse club, money for the membership, space to store a case of diapers and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in bulk.

The next best deal on diapers is found in supermarkets. Again, parents need a few things to take advantage of supermarket prices: a car and/or a nearby supermarket and enough cash (or credit) to be able to buy in diapers in the packages generally sold in these markets.

Parents who have none of these resources buy their diapers in convenience stores within walking distance of their homes. The packages are small -- sometimes as few as six in a box -- and the per-diaper price is the highest of any option you'll find.

People often say to me: Why don't these families choose reusable cloth diapers? Because renters typically don't have washing machines, and many laundromats don't allow people to wash diapers. Even if a family is lucky enough to have a facility in their neighborhood where they can wash diapers, imagine the logistics. A pregnant mom was recently thrown off a city bus because the smell of her baby's soiled diaper offended the driver. How would people react to a parent carrying a sack of dirty diapers? Add to that the difficulty of managing a child (or children) on public transportation.

So there you have it -- a diaper desert. That's why so many struggling families report choosing between paying the electric bill, buying food or purchasing enough diapers to change their babies whenever they are wet.

Much attention has been focused on changing food deserts for the sake of the nation's health, as it should be. Let's not forget, though, that good food is not the only thing a child needs. No community will be a healthy place for a child to grow up until all a baby's basic needs are accessible and affordable.