Another way to fight obesity: city planning

I think the key statement to take from this article is this:

To a great extent, cities and counties can fight obesity and encourage fitness by demanding that developers create communities built on the principles of walkability.

We should be alarmed that Kern County childhood obesity rates are up sharply, even as statewide rates have leveled off.

But we should hardly be surprised.

To recap: A new study reveals that the number of Kern County children who are overweight or obese rose nearly 6 percent between 2005 and 2010, while the statewide rate fell 1.1 percent over the same period.

Credible research points to the underlying causes of this devastating epidemic among our children, and it is rooted in poverty and access to healthy food, problems which are both prevalent in Kern County.

The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which authored the new study, has previously published studies on the type of food retailers in communities around the state and the link between high obesity and diabetes rates to retail food environments.

One study found that among the state’s largest cities, Bakersfield had the highest concentration of “unhealthy” food retailers. There are six fast food restaurants and convenience stores for every one grocery store, farmers market or produce store in Bakersfield compared to the statewide rate of four to one.

In a subsequent study, the research group found a link between retail food environments with obesity and diabetes rates. In general, people living in areas with the highest concentration of unhealthy food retailers had higher rates of obesity and diabetes. The highest rates of obesity and diabetes were found in neighborhoods that had a high concentration of unhealthy food retailers and were populated low-income residents.

The research is clear: Retail food environment and income level play a major role in the prevalence of obesity and diabetes. On the ground, those factors have coalesced into a perfect storm right here in Kern County.

The Center’s studies have recommended various policy solutions to address these problems. One idea is to implement zoning changes that would limit new fast food restaurants in neighborhoods where there is already an overabundance, or provide incentives for grocery or produce stores to locate in neighborhoods that don’t have one. Another suggests including the health implications of an establishment in the community design and permitting process.

Such measures are not likely to be popular in Kern County but they are clearly needed as part of a wider approach to stem our childhood obesity epidemic. While 38 percent of children in California are overweight or obese, the rate in Kern County is 43.8 percent and growing. This trend must be reversed, and the best method to achieve that is to let fact-based, scientific findings guide our approach to planning and permitting.

And that doesn’t simply apply to permits for fast-food restaurants. To a great extent, cities and counties can fight obesity and encourage fitness by demanding that developers create communities built on the principles of walkability. That means wider sidewalks, adequate bikes paths, shopping areas that are reasonably navigable for pedestrians, and an abundance of trees, benches and open areas. Maintaining public health isn’t just about eating right, it’s about establishing community standards that encourage health in innumerable ways.

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