Improving Food in the Neighborhood

fruit basket (fruit_basket.jpg)

Communities can use many strategies to make it easier for people to buy fresh, nutritious food close to home, school, and work. They can change zoning and give incentives to lure supermarkets and farmers’ markets to “food deserts,” or encourage corner stores to stock fruits and vegetables. They can even create “healthy food zones” near schools to ban the fast-food restaurants that so often tempt students to skip school meals.

It remains to be seen how effective many of these strategies will be at encouraging healthy food choices, and in turn, reducing obesity rates. It’s true that in the U.S., for example, millions of people do not live within easy access of a supermarket, and that living in a food desert is associated in some studies with a higher risk of obesity. But some studies have not found a relationship between supermarket access and obesity, and there’s no guarantee that building supermarkets will improve people’s diets: While supermarkets do offer vegetables, fruits, and other healthful foods and drinks, they also sell sugary sodas, salty chips, and other junk food—and making it easier for people to buy these unhealthy foods certainly won’t turn around the obesity epidemic. That’s why supermarkets and food marketers need to be partners in obesity prevention, and come up with innovative ways to make healthy foods more appealing—and more affordable. Other strategies to encourage consumption of healthy foods, such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and limiting food marketing to children, may have a greater impact on food choices.

Here is a summary of recommendations for improving the retail food environment in neighborhoods and communities, based on a review of expert guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity, and others. For more detailed guidance on these recommendations and ideas for putting them into practice, explore the source list and the links to other resources.

On this page: Supermarket AccessFast Food and Food RetailingFarmers’ Markets and Community Gardens

Supermarket Access

Provide economic or other incentives to support development of supermarkets in food deserts(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13)
Use zoning regulations to help supermarkets locate in underserved communities (3,4,7,12,13,14)
Ensure that public transportation routes and schedules maximize access to supermarkets (4,9,14,15)

Fast-Food Limits and Healthy Food Retailing

Limit the number of fast-food restaurants in a neighborhood through zoning restrictions(4,9,12,13,15,16)
Create buffer zones restricting fast food around schools and recreation areas, using zoning laws(4,9,13,16,17,18,19)
Encourage small store owners to offer fresh produce and healthier foods through financial or other incentives(2,4,5,6,7,9,10,15)
Encourage restaurants to reformulate menu items to provide healthier options (6,7,12,20)
Improve the mobile food vendor environment(7,10,12,16,18)

  • Limit mobile vending of unhealthy foods through legislation or health department regulations (12)
  • Limit mobile vending access to schools and recreation areas frequented by children (4,9,16,18)
  • Provide permits/incentives to healthy mobile vending carts (7,10,21)

Farmers’ Markets and Community Gardens

Tools for Promoting Farmers' Markets & Gardens (tools-for-promoting-farmers-markets-gardens.jpg)

Increase access to farmers’ markets in low-income communities (2,4,5,6,7,9,10,13,15)

  • Use zoning/land use policies to create new space for farmers’ markets (4,7,10,12,13,15,16)
  • Provide government subsidies or create public/private partnerships to develop new farmers’ markets (6,7,12,15)
  • Provide financial support for marketing of and transportation to farmers’ markets (4,7,10,15)
Encourage farmers’ markets to accept electronic benefits from food assistance programs (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP))(2,4,5,6,7,9,10,12,15)
Increase farm-to-school and farm-to-institution programs (2,7,13,15)

  • Develop government procurement processes that support local farmers (7,15)
Promote community gardens through zoning policy and grants or other financial support (4,6,7,9,10,15)

Improving Food in the Neighborhood—Source List

1. Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Federal Policy Recommendations for Combating Childhood ObesityOpens in New Window. Chicago: Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association; 2010.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC Guide to Fruit & Vegetable Strategies to Increase Access, Availability, and ConsumptionOpens in New Window. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2010.

3. Khan LK, Sobush K, Keener D, et al. Recommended community strategies and measurements to prevent obesity in the United States. MMWR Recomm RepOpens in New Window. 2009;58:1-26.

4. Institute of Medicine. Local government actions to prevent childhood obesityOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2009.

5. Mulheron J, Vonasek K. Shaping a Healthier Generation: Successful state strategies to prevent childhood obesityOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: National Governors’ Association; 2009.

6. Lee V, Mikkelsen L, Srikantharajah J, Cohen L. Promising Strategies for Creating Healthy Eating and Active Living EnvironmentsOpens in New Window. Oakland: Prevention Institute; 2008.

7. Leadership for Health Communities. Action Strategies Toolkit: A Guide for local and state leaders working to create healthy communities and prevent childhood obesityOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2009.

8. Friedman R. Strategies to Prevent Overweight and ObesityOpens in New Window. New Haven: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; 2010.

9. U.S. Conference of Mayors. Mayors’ Guide to Fighting Childhood ObesityOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Mayors; 2009.

10. White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity within a Generation: White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the PresidentOpens in New Window: White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity; 2010.

11. National Association of County and City Health Officials. Statement of Policy: Comprehensive Obesity PreventionOpens in New Window; 2010.

12. American Academy of Pediatrics. Prevention and Treatment of Child Overweight and Obesity: Policy Opportunities ToolOpens in New Window. 2010. Accessed October 4, 2010.

13. Levi J, Segal, LM, St. Laurent, R, Kohn, D. F as in Fat 2011: How Obesity Threatens America’s FutureOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: Trust for America’s Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2011.

14. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Model Local Obesity Prevention ResolutionOpens in New Window. 2010.

15. Leadership for Health Communities. Improving Access to Healthy Foods: A guide for policy-makersOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2007.

16. Frieden TR, Dietz W, Collins J. Reducing childhood obesity through policy change: acting now to prevent obesity. Health Aff (Millwood)Opens in New Window. 2010;29:357-63.

17. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Reducing Junk Food Marketing to Children: State and Local Policy Options for Advocates and Policy MakersOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2010.

18. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Model Healthy Food Zone OrdinanceOpens in New Window. 2009. Accessed February 6, 2012.

19. Leadership for Health Communities RWJF. Improving Access to Healthy Foods: A guide for policy-makersOpens in New Window. Washington, D.C.: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2007.

20. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Putting Health on the Menu: A Toolkit for Creating Healthy Restaurant ProgramsOpens in New Window. 2012. Accessed February 6, 2012.

21. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Model Ordinance: Produce CartsOpens in New Window. 2010. Accessed February 6, 2012.

Terms of Use

The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.

Terms of Use

The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Source Web site is to provide timely information about obesity’s global causes, consequences, prevention, and control, for the public, health and public health practitioners, business and community leaders, and policymakers. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The Web site’s obesity prevention policy recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments, so that healthy choices are easy choices, for all.