California teenagers are living and attending schools in junk food wastelands, according to a new study by researchers at UCLA.
Researchers analyzed the number of healthy and unhealthy restaurants and food outlets near teens' schools and homes. The result: For nearly 75 percent of teens, junk food outlets outnumber healthy ones at least 5-to-1.
The study, released Wednesday by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, found that daily soda consumption was 17 percent higher among teens in the most junk food saturated environments. Teens were 18 percent more likely to eat fast food at least twice a week in those places.
More than 2 million California children ages 12 to 17 – 58 percent – drink soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day, the center found. More than 1.6 million eat fast food at least twice a week.
On average, junk food outlets – fast food restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores, dollar stores and pharmacies – outnumber produce vendors, grocery stores and warehouse stores 7.9-to-1 in California. In no county do healthy retailers come out on top. In fact, for 3.7 percent of teens in the state, there are no such stores within half a mile of their school or within a given radious around their home (one mile in urban areas, two miles in smaller cities and suburbs, and five miles in rural areas).
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The findings, funded by The California Endowment, a financial supporter of California Watch, show that communities could "very well benefit by adding more healthier outlets because that would decrease their saturation of unhealthy outlets," said Susan Babey, an author of the report and senior research scientist at the center. "Our data suggests that they (teens) would be less likely to eat fast food and drink soda."
To determine how food environments affected teens' eating habits, researchers drew on data from more than 3,600 adolescents interviewed for the 2007 California Health Interview Survey and the locations of retail food outlets from the 2007 InfoUSA business file.
Sutter and Sacramento counties had the highest proportions of unhealthy food retailers. There were more than 10 junk food outlets for every healthy one, researchers found. In Sutter, 72 percent of teens drank soda daily, and 45 percent ate fast food at least twice a week. In Sacramento, 53 percent drank soda daily, and 49 percent ate fast food at least twice a week.
Teens faced with the lowest proportions of junk food, on the other hand, consumed less soda and fast food. In Nevada County, where there are 2.7 unhealthy food outlets for every healthy one, 41 percent of teens drank soda daily. Thirty-one percent of teens in Humboldt County, where junk food retailers outnumber healthy stores 3.1-to-1, ate fast food at least twice a week.
A higher percentage of 12- to 17-year olds were not overweight or obese in Nevada and Humboldt counties (about 96 percent) than in Sutter and Sacramento counties (90.3 percent and 91.5 percent, respectively), according to the 2007 California Health Interview Survey.
Such findings do not surprise food policy advocates like Rebecca Flournoy, associate director of the nonprofit PolicyLink.
"This really confirms that yet again, when you look at adolescents and where they live and where they go to school, that access to food really does matter," she said.
Several local, state and federal policies are trying to increase access to healthy foods. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the California FreshWorks Fund, a financing initiative for healthy food. The public-private partnership loan fund currently has $200 million to support grocery stores and other healthy food retailers in low-income, underserved communities.
The fund is modeled after a 2004 initiative in Pennsylvania that leveraged a $30 million investment into $192 million worth of healthy food retail projects, Flournoy said. The initiative has brought 88 grocery stores and other food retailers to the state and has improved access to healthy foods for 400,000 people.
The program can directly affect health as well as local economies, Flournoy said. Research shows that people with healthier food options are less likely to be obese, and grocery stores bring jobs and attract more retail development because of foot traffic, she said.
"It can really help a neighborhood spiral upward," she said. Partners of the California FreshWorks Fund, which include banks, grocers and philanthropic organizations, expect the initiative to create or retain about 6,000 jobs in the state.