Is Your Neighborhood Making You Fat?

Parkside MarketParkside Market in Astoria, New York.

The neighborhood grocery store is becoming an endangered species in many parts of the country, from New York to Seattle. Now, U.C.L.A. researchers have uncovered a link between the grocery gap and rising obesity, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The study found that neighborhoods with dramatically more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores than supermarkets also have significantly elevated rates of obesity and diabetes.

The relationship holds true across demographic lines and income levels.

But what’s driving grocery stores to close their doors?


The market reflects the preferences of the consumers.


inability to take mass transportation. when i walked to the subway or from the commuter rail in Boston, my weight stayed down. Once we had two kids in day care at work and had to drive, there goes the weight. being in reasonable walking distance to/from mass transportation was a big benefit to getting enough exercise.


What all of you who are complaining about the dietary habits of people on EBT/limited food budgets are missing is simple: they're making rational food choices regarding maximum caloric value to purchase price and also fulfilling an emotional need for some happiness. The average family on EBT gets $368 a month for four people. Look at your own grocery budget -- mine, for two people, is higher than that, and I have a Sunflower Farmer's Market where I can actually get real produce (often organic) for very good prices. The average family receiving EBT also works, often as much as 120 hours a week per pair of adults. (2 adults, both making minimum wage, 35 hours a week (which is what most minimum wage jobs max at because they don't want to pay for full time employees), do not meet the federal poverty line for a family of three, much less more people -- and no, condoms aren't allowed on EBT, and Planned Parenthood -- that's in the suburbs, out of reach if you don't have a car, and they still charge money you gotta have for something else. So yes, when you're poor, you rely on convenience foods. You don't have time to make bread, simmer cheap meat for 12 hours to palatability, and don't have a full cabinet of spices to help. You can't even afford to buy a crock-pot because those aren't covered by food stamps!

A bag of chips is $1.99 and gives about 1200 calories. A bag of lettuce is $2.50 and gives about 100 calories and for the brain, does nothing to give a sense of satiation, unlike the chips. When you're poor, there's not much in the world that makes it a little better because everything is hard and difficult and ten times worse than it is when you have money. When you're poor, having a cookie instead of an apple makes the world a little easier to face, in part because your body responds to the fat and carbs in the cookie with a sense of well being. For that matter, that's why poor people smoke -- nicotine provides a marginal sense of solace that lets you get through the next hour a little easier.

I've lived on food stamps -- they suck. They're better than starving, but when you're working 60 hours a week, trying to do child care, study, keep house at a tolerable level so your kid siblings don't get taken into foster care, and balancing a thousand economic stressors, you make concessions. Sometimes that means a lunchable instead of 2 hours cooking. Sometimes it means giving your kid sister a $5 stamp to get whatever junk she wants because she'll be happy and let you study. Sometimes it means a week of egg salad sandwiches and ramen with frozen vegetables because you're tired and you screwed up the balance and you're a week away from disbursement and all you can afford is six loaves of bread, a jar of mayo, two dozen eggs, 3 bags of frozen veg, and 30 bricks of noodles. Being poor means any mistake is magnified 20 times because you don't have a credit card to fall back on, you can't get a loan, and your bank already hates you.

Until you've lived that life, you can't judge what compromises a person has to make.



My thought is that grocery stores are disappearing from poor neighborhoods due to microeconomics. Where would you rather put a grocery, if you were a company -- in a poor neighborhood where you sell only low-margin items (as inexpensive staples tend to be) or in a rich one where you sell high-margin items (as expensive foodstuffs tends to be)? Which one will be more profitable?

Not to mention the lower risk of crime -- I'd wager that stores in poor neighborhoods tend to be robbed more often than ones in rich neighborhoods.


Its the passionate level of people working/owning these stores. Why didn't Astoria list it as for sale before shutting it down? Certainly the interest level would be high!

High end gourmet food stores are all the rage in Oakland, especially the one in Rockridge.


How about this scenario?
When I was a kid we had a little store up the road with local produce and fresh meats. Mom could send us to pick up something for that night's dinner. The only food in storage is what we canned.

NOW--competition from the big stores drives out the small ones, so I'm forced to drive more miles to do my shopping. I'm not going to waste time every day or every other day driving to that store, so when I'm there on my weekly (or more) shopping trip, I'm going to stock up (healthy or junk, whatever). So now I have a fridge and possibly freezer full of food at home. Lots of opportunity to grab something to eat--there's plenty right in my house.

Now, could THAT be an issue as well?

Unindicted Co-conspirator

Starting about 30 years ago, Jewel Food in Chicago made a decision to close all of its stores that were 30,000 sq. ft. or smaller.
It replaced some of them with 60,000 sq. ft. stores or larger, with a few of them at 100,000 sq. ft.
But when they closed the stores, they placed restrictive covenants on the property preventing a new grocery from opening in that location. This policy started when Jewel was an independent company & has continued through three mergers, first with American Stores of Salt Lake City, then American Stores of Boise & now Supervalu of Minneapolis.

Dominick's, which is a Safeway division has closed over a dozen stores in the Chicago area has done the same thing. There are several of these stores still vacant for over a year.

By placing these restrictions on the only large parcels of land available to grocers in increasingly built up areas, not only have they eliminated competition, but made it impossible to open new stores of decent size.

On the North Side of Chicago, Costco tore down three huge multi-story warehouses that True Value Hardware moved out of to build its only in city location.

At another North Side location, Home Depot bought a closed Super K Mart & built a store there solely to prevent Menard's from building a competing home center there. There are at least four other Home Depots within 5 miles of that location, including one just over two miles away.

Chicago supposedly has the lowest level of grocer competition in the country. The only improvement in the last few years has been the addition of Costco, but all but two are way out in the burbs & Sam's Club, but there are none of those in the city itself.


Bill Harshaw

When I read the Times article, I wondered whether produce requires a lot more infrastructure and involves a lot more risk. Maintaining suppliers through the year and being able sell the produce rather than having it spoil would be problems for any store. So a small supermarket might be making its money on the staples (milk, beer, etc.) and using produce as an attraction. Drugstores and other outlets come in, siphon off the money making trade and leave the small supermarkets with the risky produce trade. Rents rise as real estate values rise in a rejuvenated city. Consequence: small supermarkets lose out.


Astoria Queens is the last place on earth that should be featured as a place with no supermarkets. There are loads of supermarkets here, and some of them are open 24/7. And these are not bodegas, they're big, well-stocked, diverse supermarkets. When we have visitors from Europe, where I grew up, I take them on a tour of our local Trade Fair just to show them how many different nationalities are represented in these stores. We also have a tremendous amount of small fruit and vegetable stores that have their bounty spilling out onto the sidewalks and some of them are open all night. My husband and I have come home at 4:00am and stopped to buy fresh strawberries for our breakfast cereal. Astoria is paradise. There are also Greek specialty stores and supermarkets, at least 3 that come to mind as I'm sitting here. I reiterate: Astoria is paradise. And the median income is not high. It's not a poor neighborhood but it's not rich either. I would also like to mention our little health food store: Broadway Natural, where I buy fresh organic vegetable juices every day.



There was an article posted on the front page yesterday that answered that question - high rents combined with very thin profit margins.


I live in Philadelphia and am sick to my stomach as to the lack of access to grocery stores in poor areas- where the heck are these citizens supposed to shop?- answer: convenience stores = ripoff = poor tax; or, mickey d's = obesity/metabolic syndrome- indeed, Philadelphia is empirically the fattest city in the country (in ur face Milwaukee!)- what caused grocery store emigration to the wealthy areas?- negligent public policy- the city government needs to mandate grocery store locations to effect universal access to quality food- this is America, the richest land- we should be shamed that our poorer citizens have to go the extra mile (literally) just to feed their families properly


Causality in the reverse direction makes a bit more sense. People with bad eating habits (by choice or necessity) don't go to supermarkets but do eat fast food, so supermarkets pack up shop and fast food expands. These people also get fat because of those bad eating habits.

Causality in the direction mentioned is possible, but it seems like it would be a lot less powerful.


(#8)"...the government needs to mandate grocery store locations..."- "this is America"

These are completely conflicting statements, comrade.


#1 is right. Correlation does not imply causation. Maybe fat people are driving away neighborhood stores.


#3, it says that the relationship is independent of income levels.

However, I doubt that the type of store affects whether or not people are obese. In fact the other way around seems much more likely.


Also, such situations exists in poor neighborhoods and a link has been established between poverty and obesity. So, all this could mean is that poverty links the two.


Also, the increase is only about 20% from the low areas to the high areas. So it's not that significant an effect, either way.


Perhaps the big chains that allow you to order online are pushing out the smaller operations that can't afford to offer that (or that just haven't gotten on the bandwagon yet) too?


JRRD (#15):

Thanks for posting your information. I think that's an interesting point. It would be interesting to get a month's data from a grocery store and and compare food stamps purchases against non-food stamps purchases. Perhaps what we need to do is to run food stamps under the WIC rules, which only approves food that is reasonably nutritious and reasonably cost-effective. Any grocery store that's already got the WIC information in their database (all of the large ones, and most of the smaller ones) could apply those restrictions to food stamps with essentially the flip of a bit in the database.

B K Ray

While it a simple conclusion to come to, a much more important question is not being asked. Why is fast food so unhealthy? Does food have to be unhealty to be fast? How fast is fast? If you go to a fast food restaurant in a poor neighborhood, fast is one thing it is not. Fast food is a prevalence of fried food and cheese. Is there no way to serve broccoli or cabbage that is fast? Or is there a way to incorporate more fiberous food (veggies)into fast food staples, like hot dogs or hamburgers so that they are not all meat content?