Slim Down, Philly! Anti-Obesity Campaign Takes Off

Philadelphia is sinking nearly a million bucks into healthier food options for city-dwellers.
With nearly 33 percent of its population considered obese, Philly needs a game plan. (Visage/Getty Images)
Jun 12, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Cheesesteaks and cream cheese may have earned the City of Brotherly Love a place in the hearts of tourists, but these fattening foods certainly haven't fared well for Philadelphians: Nearly 33 percent of Philadelphia's population is obese. The city also has the poorest population of America's big cities. With such sorry statistics to its name, Philly is ready to make some changes. Enter a new anti-obesity program that aims to put healthier food options in underserved neighborhoods.

To make the plan work, the city is sinking $900,000 into corner stores, hoping to transition them into at least partial green groceries where people without access to fruits and veggies can pop in and get their produce fix, reports The Washington Post. More than 600 corner stores stand to gain from the funds, which will go toward bringing in fresher foods, installing fridges, and introducing shopping baskets.

The plan is part of a larger movement powered by the Obama administration, which has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into ideas like Philadelphia's and aims to eradicate food deserts—areas devoid of healthy options—by 2017.

Despite the obvious need for healthier food, the plan is a tricky sell for store owners accustomed to making money from candy and chips, which have a much longer shelf life than, say, bananas, apples, or eggplants. If customers don't latch on to the ideas, store owners will eat the loss. 

There's also reason to believe that the plan won't work. Proximity to healthy foods doesn't guarantee a change in eating habits, as The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff points out. Previous studies have shown little or no correlation. One example is a study by Adam Drewnowski, who surveyed Seattle residents and learned that people didn't necessarily eat where they lived. Other factors affected their decisions beyond just location; public transportation and price also played a role.

"If you live next to a Mercedes dealership, that doesn't mean you'll buy a Mercedes," Drewnowski told The Washington Post. "And it's the same with living next to a grocery store. That doesn't mean you'll start eating salads."

Maybe so. But Philadelphia is also looking at a much longer trajectory than previous studies have examined, hoping that time will prove that more options really can equate to healthier lifestyles.

Besides, with ballooning obesity costs in the U.S., it's worth a shot. The U.S. spends $147 billion every year to combat obesity. Surely some perished fruits and veggies here and there are worth the trade-off.

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