For folks who live in low-income neighborhoods, it’s often more difficult, if not impossible, to find healthy food selections such as fresh produce in nearby grocery stores. This is one of the factors that has contributed to an alarming rise in childhood obesity. But a new study shows it may be possible to begin to turn the tide of childhood obesity by renovating local supermarkets and making a nutritious foods more widely available at reasonable prices.

Childhood obesity is a major national health crisis. It’s estimated that one in five children is affected by the condition and the pandemic has made the problem worse.

Obesity can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart disease, as well as difficulty getting around physically and contributes to painful emotional issues including depression and low self-esteem.

It may be possible to turn the tide of childhood obesity by renovating local supermarkets and making a variety of nutritious foods more widely visible and available.

“Our study highlights that one in four New York City public school kids sampled, predominantly Hispanic and Black, is obese, a worrisome sign of the depth of the problem facing children’s health in the city,” lead investigator, Pasquale Rummo, an epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University’s Langone Health, said in a statement.

Within a year after the opening of newly-renovated or new supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods with more space devoted to grocery products like fresh produce, a study a team of researchers at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine found that obesity rates among the nearly 23,000 school-age children living within a half-mile of eight of the stores dropped from 24.3 percent to 23.3 percent. Admittedly, the one percent isn’t a big reduction, but obesity rates held steady among the over 8,700 students who lived where there were no renovated grocery stores nearby.

Another key result was that obesity risk scores declined among kindergarten students through eight graders, as compared with students in grades 9 through 12. Rummo points out that teenagers have more freedom to travel outside their local neighborhoods than younger children. Plus, they generally have more money to spend at fast food restaurants or on unhealthy snacks available in bodegas.

At least one supermarket in each of the city’s five boroughs that participated in New York City’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program from 2009 to 2016 took part in the study. Supermarkets were given grants and tax breaks to renovate or build nearly two dozen supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods with high unemployment as part of the FRESH program. The idea behind the grants was to improve local access to healthy foods.

Even though the positive results of this supermarket study were modest, the improvements it showed are a hopeful step towards combatting this serious issue. “These results, however small, demonstrate that supermarket subsidies might play an effective role in addressing the complex problem of childhood obesity in America, especially among our most at-risk Hispanic and Black children,” senior investigator, Brian Elbel, a professor in the Departments of Population Health and Medicine at NYU Langone, said.

Meanwhile, if you have a child dealing with overweight issues, these suggestions can help:

  • Encourage healthy eating habits by limiting sugary drinks and snacks, choosing lean meats, fish and beans for protein, as well as providing veggies, fruits and whole grains.
  • Reduce recreational screen time to no longer than 2 hours a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend television viewing for children under two years of age.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep. A lack of sleep contributes to obesity. The reason? When we’re tired, our appetite increases and our interest in physical activity plummets.
  • Promote physical activities whether that’s team sports or simply a walking routine.
  • Make dinner a family affair and eat at home.
  • Speak with your child’s healthcare provider for more guidance.

Next up: the team plans to look at the health effects of other supermarket-based incentives such as discounted prices for fruits and veggies and whether these subsidies can encourage consumption of fresh food and impact obesity rates in the process. The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.