Fighting the obesity epidemic in City Heights

A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine contained findings that are particularly relevant to communities like City Heights which suffer from high levels of obesity. Authors of the study suggest that diets are most affected by income and proximity to fast food restaurants; those with less money to spend and access to a quick meal had the poorest diets.

In other words, solving the obesity epidemic in low-income communities involves much more than improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

In City Heights, diet-related health problems are widespread although residents have access to national and local grocers, a farmers market and community gardens. Initiatives aimed at getting people to the farmers market have seen success, but it seems many residents are still choosing Jack and Ronald McDonald.

Perhaps that’s the real crux of the issue: choice.

Within seven square miles of City Heights, there are nearly 60 fast food restaurants, 40 convenience stores and 120 liquor vendors, according to Health Equity By Design.

In a commentary of the study, Jonathan Fielding from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Paul Simon of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggest that limiting these options could go farther in combating obesity than making healthy foods and grocery stores more widely available.

They recommend solutions like the 2008 Los Angeles moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. A smaller-scale solution is the new healthy food financing initiative by the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative called Cilantro to Stores. The project will entice four Chula Vista corner markets to replace some junk food with healthier options by funding store facade upgrades.

In City Heights, food justice advocates have focused on bringing a farmers market to the neighborhood and opening community gardens. These programs address availability, but they also influence healthy choices by way of price.

Unlike a new grocery store or a fast food moratorium, the efforts in City Heights make healthy food cheaper. In poor neighborhoods, especially ones with a high refugee population, choice is as much a function of one’s budget as it is of taste.

The farmers market and community gardens have made strides in changing eating habits, not because they brought produce to the community, but because they made the produce affordable. The International Rescue Committee doubles Cal Fresh and Women, Infant and Children (WIC) dollars spent at the market through a program called Fresh Fund.

The California Endowment is also trying to influence food choice by lining wallets. In June, the statewide health foundation announced a project that will double WIC funds spent on healthy foods anywhere the vouchers are accepted. The increased spending power gives low-income residents the option to make healthy choices and could make over convenience store shelves if owners see profits on produce rise.

Megan Burks is the Web editor for Speak City Heights. She also writes and produces videos for HealthyCal.org. Her favorite City Heights restaurant is Bale French Sandwich Shop.