Editorial: Access to healthy foods first step of many to better health

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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A nationwide effort has been in effect over the past decade to eradicate “food deserts” — rural and urban regions that lack access to fresh, nutritious food.

Philadelphia, the flagship city of this movement, has invested millions of dollars in building grocery stores and implementing healthier food options in bodegas and corner stores in areas of the city that are less developed. Since the late 2000s, projects sprouted up across the city to combat the food desert dilemma, using capital from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund to replace unhealthy options with foods such as fruits and vegetables.

While many Philadelphians noticed an increase in the number of grocery stores and accessibility to healthier foods, little progress has been made in terms of community health. According to researchers affiliated with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Penn State University, residents aren’t actually getting healthier, and among those who used these new food options, little improvement in body mass index was recorded. Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, which was considered a food desert until it opened a grocery store in 2013, can use this study as proof that community nourishment goes beyond the presence of healthy food options.

There is a multi-step process to getting individuals healthier, and providing the resources is just the first step. Steadfast awareness and educational services to alert residents of such options and their benefits have to be conducted more efficiently to generate incentives to tap into these resources. While research is still being conducted to determine whether the presence of grocery stores in Pittsburgh’s former food deserts has improved community health, certain steps can be taken to ensure tangible changes will take place.

In Pittsburgh, Just Harvest, an organization that strives to combat hunger and poverty in the city, has hosted awareness events with local communities and organizations to teach citizens how to combat a lack of accessibility to nutritious foods. The organization diversifies its techniques in each neighborhood in which it operates, as each region’s needs differ based on its unique circumstances.

But efforts from organizations such as Just Harvest are not enough. Large institutions such as Pitt, which has gained a reputation for its focus on public health, should take steps to make Pittsburgh a strong, positive example of community health.

Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences is an entity that could use its students to educate residents in food-desert areas about the benefits of eating healthier foods along with how to go about acquiring such foods. The school’s nutrition and dietetics program should collaborate with the staff of grocery stores in former food deserts such as the Hill District, sending them student interns to help them provide affordable and healthy options to residents who frequent the grocery stores. 

Students can be an excellent resource to tap into, especially in urban centers that surround less populated areas. While regions look to solve the food desert problem, educational institutions should be consulted in helping to guide residents in the right direction and potentially produce positive results.

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