New Study Finds That Living Near Healthy Food Retailers is Associated with Lower Diabetes Rates Across the Nation

The Impact of Healthy Food Access on Diabetes Rates Even More Pronounced in Counties with Above Average Populations of Color

Published Apr 19, 2016

WASHINGTON (April 19, 2016)—For the first time, data show that across all U.S. counties, living near healthy food retailers is associated with lower diabetes rates, according to a report the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released today, The Devastating Consequences of Unequal Food Access: The Role of Race and Income in Diabetes. The UCS study found that the impact of healthy food access on diabetes rates is even more pronounced in counties with above average populations of color, which is significant given that communities of color are disproportionately affected by diabetes.

“This study backs up what we’ve known for a long time: you can’t buy what’s not there,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, food systems and health analyst at UCS and lead author of the report. “For those communities that have the time, money and know-how to readily purchase and prepare healthy meals, proximity to healthy food stores does lead to better health outcomes.”

Since the 1980s, diabetes rates among U.S. adults have nearly quadrupled from 5.5 million in 1980 to 29.1 million in 2014. If this trend continues, nearly 30 percent of adults could have diabetes by 2050.

The study is the first to look at the relationship between proximity to healthy food outlets and diabetes rates by racial and economic status across the country. The study used county-level data. Previous studies examined data at the city or state level.

The study's key findings are:

  • Increased access to healthy food was associated with lower diabetes rates. Across all counties, having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 residents was associated with a 0.52 percent decrease in a county’s diabetes rate. This translates to nearly 175,000 fewer people with diabetes across the U.S.
  • The impact of increased access to healthy foods was greatest among counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color. Having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 residents was associated with a reduction in diabetes rate that is three times larger in counties with above-average percentages of residents of color than counties with below-average percentages. 
  • Access to healthy food had the smallest impact on diabetes rates in lower-income counties, presumably because residents have less expendable income to spend on healthy food. Having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 residents was associated with a reduction in diabetes rate that was two and a half times smaller in lower-income counties than in higher-income counties. 
  • Conversely, increased access to unhealthy food was associated with higher diabetes rates. Across all counties, having an additional unhealthy food retailer per 1,000 people was associated with a 0.10 percent increase in a county’s diabetes rates. This translates to approximately 35,000 more people with diabetes across the United States. 

“In my neighborhood you have to pass 10 fast food restaurants and many billboards advertising these foods before getting to the supermarket; it’s no wonder many kids are hooked on junk food,” said Mary Montgomery, resident of West Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s good to see efforts to get more fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods in my neighborhood, but for most residents, choices often aren’t real choices when you take into account real life situations. I see families and seniors struggle because they don’t have the resources to purchase farm fresh food or they may not own a car and can’t get to a store easily.” 

The report is the second in a UCS series making the case for a national food policy to address an outdated and out-of-balance food system that prioritizes the overproduction of crops used in unhealthy processed junk foods. It should include expanded initiatives to bring healthy food into underserved neighborhoods, including innovative mechanisms such as food hubs and mobile markets; changes to nutrition assistance programs; and greater emphasis on nutrition education.

“This is a complex problem and our study shows that the ‘build a supermarket and they will come’ solution might not be the silver bullet that policy experts hoped for,” said Haynes-Maslow. “Public policies need to also tackle low income residents’ rock bottom wages, unpredictable work schedules, lack of affordable public transportation and many other issues.”

Among the state and federal policies needed are those that support community-led efforts to increase access to healthy foods, according to the report.

“We believe that healthy food is the cornerstone of a healthy community, and we’re happy to see more and more research showing this connection,” said Princess Titus, co-founder of Appetite for Change, a grassroots nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “We’re proud to offer fresh, local foods to communities who will benefit the most and want to see more people of color providing fresh and local food to our own communities.”