Having limited access to healthy foods and easy access to snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages can undermine people’s efforts to eat well. In some urban areas, busy roadways and long distances to shopping centers can make it hard for residents to buy fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Nearby, convenience stores may have a limited selection of healthy products. As part of the recovery plan from Hurricane Katrina, city officials in New Orleans, Louisiana, Prevention Research Center (PRC) staff, and local leaders are facilitating merchants to open new grocery stores or expanding shops to sell healthy foods. Researchers are conducting a four-part study to assess how family conditions, the availability of healthy foods, participation in community health programs, and other factors may change as the recovery effort continues. They will also assess how all of these factors shape the residents’ regular diets over time. In a citywide survey of 3,000 randomly selected residents, respondents will be asked about their eating habits, access to food, and transportation for buying food. Two years after these data are collected, another 3,000 people will be surveyed to determine if the city’s changes in food access, food quality, and variety helped people improve their eating habits and access to healthy foods. The researchers will also interview 300 randomly selected shoppers from each of three low-income areas to learn about their experiences with food access and selection. One area has a new food store. No new stores are expected to open in the other two areas. Shoppers will be asked about their food purchases 3 months before the scheduled opening of the new store to gather baseline data. Six months later, a second set of interviews will be conducted and results will be compared to assess the purchase and consumption of fresh produce, attitudes toward eating, and how shoppers choose a store for their regular food shopping.
In part three of the study, the use of shelf space to sell various products will be assessed among randomly selected stores across the city. Researchers will determine if retailers changed their offerings to optimize sales based on 2009 revisions to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which limits milk purchases to low-fat varieties and offers vouchers for fresh produce. Since 2004, researchers have measured shelf space devoted to sweets, snacks, and carbonated beverages as well as for fresh, frozen, and canned produce and different varieties of milk. Data collection will continue each year through 2014 to assess how merchants respond to changes in food policies.
In part four, the researchers are working with 250 sets of parents and their children aged 4 to 14 years, who attend school in Central City. Researchers are testing the association between healthy body weight and the levels of participation in health programs at school and in the community. The researchers will match children living in the study region with controls by age, family income, gender, body weight, and percentage of body fat. The researchers will take measurements again two years later and explore how participation in school and community programs contributed to changes in body weight and fat. The researchers also will try to associate participants’ body weight with other community factors (availability of healthy food at neighborhood grocery stores and neighborhood walkability) as well as household dietary habits.
Information from all four study portions will help researchers understand the daily influences on healthy eating habits and how these influences change over time.