August 27, 2014

Healthy food is rare for some, even here in the Heartland

While Nebraska is one of the nation’s top food producers, people in some areas of the state don’t have easy access to fruits and vegetables.

Courtney Pinard, a research scientist at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in Omaha, says a study finds neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods have obesity rates 52% higher than communities with ready access to fresh produce.

“A lot of communities are considered what we call food deserts and that’s when the distance to the nearest full-service grocery store is more than a mile for urban areas and for rural areas, it’s ten miles,” Pinard says. “Many communities, especially in Nebraska, do have this challenge.”

While some Nebraskans have large supermarkets nearby featuring well-stocked produce sections, she says not everyone is as fortunate.

“They don’t really have access and for the majority of the population, the middle- to upper-income, they don’t really see that but, if you go into a store in a lower-income community, even the quality of the products might not be the same,” Pinard says. “The fresh fruits and vegetables just don’t even look that good.”

A program called HNS, or Healthy Neighborhood Store, was launched in 2010 in Nebraska. It’s in eight stores in the state so far with more coming online. The goal of HNS is to improve access to five food categories: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

Pinard says, “Moving forward, we’d like to have a national program to be able to support the type of work that we’re doing and also just to increase food access in our communities.”

The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition also partners with businesses in Douglas County to connect local producers to established farm stands at worksites. Businesses that have signed up for the program include area hospitals, banks, a performing arts center and an architecture firm.