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Researchers: Arkansas Can Work to Get Rid of "Food Deserts"

More than 23 million Americans live at least 10 miles away from stores that offer fresh food for sale. (Veronica Carter)
More than 23 million Americans live at least 10 miles away from stores that offer fresh food for sale. (Veronica Carter)
January 13, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Making sure every American has access to healthy, fresh food is the point behind a University of Arkansas study. Arkansas has the highest obesity rate in the nation, and many areas that are considered "food deserts," where people live 10 miles or more from a supermarket that sells fresh meat, dairy and produce.

Professor Micheal Thomsen in the university's Division of Agriculture says his team looked at the Body Mass Index (BMI) scores for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade, and found the majority of those with weight problems live in food deserts.

"Why aren't the supermarkets there," says Thomsen. "It could be the things that are keeping supermarkets away from these areas are also making them more conducive to weight gain; maybe they're less safe, or they have fewer amenities to exercise outside, or it may not just be a food access issue."

Arkansas started a statewide BMI testing program in schools in 2003 to try and fight childhood obesity. Thomsen says research has found being overweight in childhood usually leads to being an obese adult as well.

University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture professor Rudy Nayga co-authored the study and says teaching children early to make good food choices is key, but much harder to do when families don't have much access to healthy food. He says his team looked at the kinds of stores in the neighborhoods of kids with high BMI rates.

"So, their supermarkets, their dollar stores, convenience stores, fast food restaurants," he says. "We're also gathering data on the built environment, specifically on parks and trails."

Nayga says whether children have safe places to exercise and play outdoors also affects the obesity rates in an area.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - AR