A Michigan State University researcher has pinpointed areas in Flint, Mich., that have unequal access to healthy, affordable food, and he plans to use the information to improve those areas most affected – low-income and minority neighborhoods.
“We can now say exactly where the inequalities are and also show how those inequalities are based on race and income,” said Rick Sadler, assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health.
The study is published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Sadler’s study is the first to combine data collected from the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey in Stores, or NEMS-S tool, with mapping software. The survey tool measures the actual nutritional environment in select stores to figure out if healthy, affordable food options exist.
Sadler, who led the research with co-author Erika Shaver, a dietetic intern at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, assessed the availability of healthy foods and the price differences with less-nutritious options and assigned each store a score. A total of 265 retail food stores in Flint were evaluated.
His results showed which neighborhoods had easy access to healthy foods – such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain bread and low-fat milk – and which ones didn’t.
“The Flint neighborhoods that had the most socio-economic distress and the highest percentage of African-American residents had the least access to healthy food,” Sadler said.
The study also showed that the number of liquor stores was highest in these communities as well and not a single supermarket was located in those same neighborhoods.
Beginning in 2014, residents experienced lead exposure in the city’s drinking water and since proper nutrition can mitigate the negative effects of contamination, particularly among children, Sadler’s results are concerning.
“It really helps you see that whole swaths of the city have no healthy food,” he said. “Our research could really help other cities measure the availability of healthy foods as well.”
The findings already are being used by an MSU Extension program called Refresh MI Store, which encourages convenience stores to stock healthier foods.
Sadler is preparing a follow-up study that will combine this survey with medical data on diabetes management in Flint neighborhoods. His working hypothesis is that diabetic residents in areas with the poorest access to healthy foods have the most trouble managing their diabetes.
Additional contributors to the study included MSU College of Human Medicine graduates Kendall Bell, Myah Ray, Jennifer Choy-Shin, Joy Lerner and Teresa Soldner.