Capturing Atlanta’s Food Environment: A Community Level Assessment of Three Disparate Areas
Douangchai, Vanhvilai L.
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Food system planning is a fairly new phenomenon in planning and has gained widespread momentum in recent years. Some of the key reasons why food system planning did not capture the attention of planners in the past are the perceptions of the food system as a “flow of products” that are disconnected from the built environment; as something that does not demand attention because it is functioning properly; and as something that does not relate to public services. In fact, it was not until 2005 that the American Planning Association (APA) held its first sessions on topics relating to food systems planning at its annual conference in San Francisco. Two years later, the APA’s Legislative and Policy Committee, Chapter Delegate Assembly, and Board of Directors adopted the Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning. The realization that the food system has a significant impact on energy consumption, the environment, land use, zoning, disadvantaged groups, and public services, such as water and transportation has brought food system issues to the forefront—even mainstream media has eaten up the notion. For instance, there are reports about food accessibility on National Public Radio, documentaries about food transportation and distribution on Georgia Public Broadcasting, and websites dedicated to urban agriculture and community supported agriculture. CNN has a blog called Eatocracy that focuses on all aspects of food from cultural differences in food consumption to food deserts, a term that is often used but has not been well defined. Some refer to food deserts as simply areas that are devoid of supermarkets, while others refer to it as areas that lack stores that offer healthful foods. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” The Atlanta Local Food Initiative views food deserts as “areas where there is little or no fresh food available in under-served neighborhoods.” Although the definition of food deserts is loosely interpreted, there are commonly accepted characteristics of food deserts. Communities that have a prevalence of fast food restaurants and limited or no supermarkets or grocery stores are generally viewed as food deserts. These communities are typically where disadvantaged individuals, such as the elderly, carless, and low income households live and where there is a greater prevalence of chronic diseases. Escalating incidents of obesity and diabetes in American adults, adolescents, and children have raised concerns regarding the association between the food environment and the eating habits of Americans. In 2009, only two states had an obesity rate of less than 20%. The majority of states had an obesity rate of 25% or more, including Georgia, which had an obesity rate of 27.2%.4 Between 2006-2008, Hispanics and blacks had a greater obesity rate than whites, 21% and 51%, respectively. Childhood obesity has had a significant increase as well. The prevalence of obesity among children ages 2-5 increased from 5% during the 1971-1974 period to 10.4% during the 2007-2008 period. Among children ages 6-11, the increase was from 4% to 19.6%, and among children ages 12-19, the increase was from 6.1% to 18.1% for the same periods. According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet (as cited by the American Diabetes Association), over 8% of Americans of all ages have diabetes. Approximately 11% of adults aged 20 or older have diabetes and approximately 27% of adults aged 65 or older have diabetes. One out of 400 children and adolescents has type 1 diabetes. In 2007-2009, among different races and ethnicities aged 20 or older, the prevalence of diabetes was the greatest among blacks (12.6%), followed by Hispanics (11.8%), Asians (8.4%), and whites (7.1%).6 A joint study conducted by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, PolicyLink, and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that there is a correlation between health and the types of food venues in a community. Using a ratio of the number of fast food restaurants and convenience stores to the number of supermarkets, produce vendors, and farmers’ markets, the team calculated the Retail Food Environment Index (RFEI) of over 43,000 individuals who participated in the California Health Interview Survey.7 A RFEI measures the prevalence of healthy versus unhealthy food venues, where fast food restaurants and convenience stores represent places that sell mostly unhealthy food. While supermarkets, produce vendors, and farmers’ markets represent places that sell more healthy food. The team concluded that high RFEI values correlate to both high obesity and diabetes rates and that low income communities have a higher RFEI than higher income communities.