by Kara Lubischer, MUPPD, Community Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension; and Leslie Bertsch, MS, MPH, RD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension
The HEAL initiative is working to reduce obesity in the City of St. Louis by increasing access to healthier foods.
How close do you live to the nearest grocery store? If you live in the City of St. Louis, chances are that you live at least .5 mile away or more from the nearest supermarket. Currently, 54.9% of City residents live in areas considered to be a food desert, per expanded 0.5 mile definition. (1)
A food desert is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an area “with more than 33% of residents living more than 1 mile from a supermarket in an urban area” and with “a poverty rate of 20% or greater.”(2) The USDA has an alternative definition as well – decreasing the distance to the nearest supermarket from 1 mile to a 0.5 mile. This alternative definition is more appropriate for the City of St. Louis where many residents lack access to a vehicle and must walk or use public transportation to get to the nearest supermarket. The issue of food deserts in the City is concerning as the City actively works to reduce its obesity rate and encourage people to engage in healthier lifestyle practices. People cannot be expected to eat healthier if they do not have sufficient access to healthy foods.
What is happening in the City of St. Louis?
In February 2014, the City of St. Louis Department of Health (DOH) convened a meeting engaging several community organizations currently working in the area of health and wellness to gauge their interest in forming an “obesity partnership” in order to reduce the rate of obesity and overweight in the City of St. Louis by 5% by 2018. The City DOH felt that through the implementation of a collective impact model, this group could begin improving the health and well-being of City residents. Thus the Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Partnership was formed. The main tactics employed by HEAL include community-based healthy eating and active living interventions focused on improving residents healthy lifestyle behaviors, as well as social marketing and education campaigns and comprehensive data collection.
HEAL and its Access to Healthy Food Work Group is specifically focused on employing community-based interventions that ultimately will increase people’s access to healthy foods- fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy fats. While the work group has not yet implemented a full intervention, it has been working hard to collect some initial data and develop strategic partnerships with residents and community-based organizations. The work group members are committed to ensuring that any interventions employed by the work group or HEAL are community-based and resident driven actions that will sustainably improve access to healthy foods.
Evidence Based Approach to Improving Access to Healthy Foods
While many St. Louis residents do not have access to a supermarket, they do have access to corner/convenience stores. The City DOH reports that the City of St. Louis has 349 corner stores that accept SNAP (aka food stamp) benefits compared with just 42 full-service grocery stores. Studies show that when corner stores, like the ones found all over city, dedicate just an additional 3 feet of shelf space to produce, nearby residents consume an additional 0.35 servings of fruits and vegetables.(3) This makes corner stores a powerful asset towards improving access to healthy foods in the city and is the basis for one successful intervention in St. Louis.
Before the HEAL Partnership was founded, the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project had been underway, working with community-based organizations and small food stores across the city to increase access to healthy foods. A joint program of the City of St. Louis Department of Health, St. Louis Development Corporation, and University of Missouri Extension, the project implemented research- and practice-based strategies to increase the amount of healthy food options available at corner stores in the city, primarily in areas that have been deemed as a food desert.
The project is a comprehensive, community-based approach that employs the most basic economic principle of supply and demand. By engaging residents and neighborhood organizations, the project works to first build demand for healthier foods. With the support of field faculty from University of Missouri Extension, residents learn how to engage and work with their local corner store owners to not only increase supply of healthy foods, but also to boost the marketing of their local store and drive more customers to the business. The project has been very successful, and among participating corner stores, there has been an increase in the amount of healthy food inventory available on the shelves by 24%. Although funding for the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project ended this year, the program continues under the new name of Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy.
Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy is a comprehensive, community-based program that allows communities to improve access to healthy, affordable foods by working with a small food retailer. Through toolkits, resources and webinars, Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy will guide any community through a unique approach to increasing access to healthy foods that involves engaging small food retailers and community members, and thus addresses supply and demand at the same time. Any community in the St. Louis area can pick up Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy resources and implement their own mini-healthy retail initiative as a way to close the food gap in their neighborhood. There are resources available for the store owner as well as nutrition education tools, posters, assessment forms and evaluation plans. To download a copy of the Community or Retailer toolkits, or to find out more information about Stock Healthy, Shop Healthy, visit http://extension.missouri.edu/stockhealthy/.
Working with small food retailers to increase access to healthy, affordable foods is just one successful way St. Louis has been addressing food access in our underserved communities. The City of St. Louis Department of Health, and Healthy Food Access Work Group of the HEAL Partnership, is looking to evidence-based initiatives, such as the Healthy Corner Store Project, to make a difference on the individual health outcomes of our City. Over the next several months, the Work Group will continue to collect surveys and community feedback on food access issues, as well as roll out community-driven initiatives in an effort to reduce the rate of obesity and overweight in the City of St. Louis by 2018.
This post is part of the August 2015 “Food” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.
1. City of St. Louis Department of Health. Food Access in St. Louis. April 2014.
2. United States Department of Agriculture- Economic Research Service. Food Access Research Atlas. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/documentation.aspx#.U0xkffldXwo . March 11, 2105.
3. Policy Link & Food Trust. The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why it Matters. 2010.Tags: Collaboration, Diet and Nutrition, Obesity, St. Louis