Public Housing Conditions Can Contribute to Obesity

Newswise — People living in urban public housing have few places to get a healthy meal and less-than-ideal facilities for exercise, according to a new study done in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.

"There were strikingly few healthful food resources located on the property or within a short walk of the majority of the housing developments," said study co-author Rebecca Lee of the University of Houston.

The study, which appears in the March-April issue of American Journal of Health Promotion, suggests "that although strides have been made increase safety and comfort in public housing, there remains poor access to physical resources and healthful food sources," Lee and colleagues say.

Lee and colleagues surveyed 14 developments and their surrounding neighborhoods within a half-mile radius and interviewed the development managers to uncover any factors that may contribute to obesity among public housing residents.

Only two developments had grocery stores within a block and none had places onsite for residents to buy food, with the exception of a few vending machines.

Although most of the buildings were in good condition, broken glass, trash and some concerns about neighborhood safety may have made the developments less attractive places to exercise, the researchers say.

Half of the developments had noticeable amounts of trash on their grounds and half had broken glass on the property, the researchers found. Although the development managers said their own properties are relatively safe, they gave mixed answers in interviews about the overall safety of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Recreational facilities at the developments varied widely. Most developments had a playground and half had a basketball court in mediocre or good condition. There were no tennis courts, pools or volleyball courts at any of the developments.

Indoor activity areas were also scarce, although most of the housing managers interviewed "were of the opinion that more housing development residents would exercise if there were more physical activity resources indoors in the common area of the development," Lee said.

The managers said residents often ate at fast-food restaurants. The small stores in the neighborhoods sold few groceries, according to one manager, just "candy and soda, and pretty much the worst things in the world, a greasy sandwich."

Public housing residents may be "an especially vulnerable population" when it comes to obesity because residents are poor and often members of minority groups, Lee and colleagues note. Rates of obesity are higher among the poor and ethnic minorities such as African-Americans.

Although many studies have shown that low-income communities have few places to buy healthy food, so far there are only scattered efforts to improve this situation, says Kimberly Morland, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"I don't think there is any current data to illustrate what works better than another thing — because we haven't tried that many things yet," Morland says.

Grassroots efforts that involve community leaders and take into account a neighborhood's food preferences may be one way to improve the eating landscape in poor communities. For instance, Morland is working with a nonprofit group to bring a food co-op with healthier foods to black and Latino low-income communities in a Brooklyn neighborhood.

She said surveys show the community members are "very receptive to the idea" of the co-op.

"There was a very strong consensus that they wanted their own food market owned by the community — they didn't want to bring in a supermarket chain. They wanted to control what was offered and at what prices," Morland said.

Regan, G. et al. Obesogenic influences in public housing: a mixed-method analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion, Mar-April, 282-290, 2006.

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