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Food Geography: How food access affects diet and health
Tuesday. May 2, 2006


In the United States, nutrition-related health problems are reaching epidemic levels.  Reports from the Surgeon General indicate that the number of adults and children who are obese or at-risk for obesity has increased dramatically during the past decade.  Low-income and minority communities are by far the hardest hit as obesity and diet-related disease rates skyrocket across America.  Emerging evidence suggests that access to healthy food in neighborhoods is associated with a health-promoting diet and that poor access is associated with poor health outcomes.

Mirroring national data, in Philadelphia many low-income and minority individuals suffer from diet-related health problems at rates significantly higher than those of the City’s population as a whole.  Philadelphia has the second lowest number of supermarkets per capita in the United States, which makes accessing quality produce a challenge for many residents.  

The following article is an excerpt from a recently released report produced by The Food Trust and PHMC examining how food access affects diet and health.  For a full copy of the report, please click here.

Quality of Groceries Available

The absence of supermarkets and the inability to find quality groceries can lead to food insecurity, hunger, and obesity.  In Philadelphia, nearly 228,000 residents believe that the quality of the groceries available in their neighborhood is fair or poor.  Certain population subgroups, such as the poor and certain minority groups, are more likely to report poor quality of their groceries. 

- One in three poor* adults in Philadelphia, representing 66,700 residents, report having fair or poor quality of groceries in their neighborhoods compared to 17.8% of non-poor adults.

- Overall, adults in fair or poor health were nearly twice as likely to report poor quality of groceries compared to adults in good or excellent health (15% vs. 7.5%).

Disparities in Access to Fruits and Vegetables in Philadelphia

Access to fresh produce differs among adults in Philadelphia.  Findings show that approximately 71,000 adult Philadelphia residents report that it is difficult to find fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood.  Furthermore, more than eight out of ten adults who report poor quality groceries in their neighborhoods do not consume the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Among those that do consume the recommended servings, 82% report having good or excellent quality neighborhood groceries. 

Need for Travel Outside of the Neighborhood to Reach a Grocery Store

More than 363,000 residents of Philadelphia (32%) have to travel outside their neighborhood to purchase groceries.  Residents of Lower-North Philadelphia are disproportionately impacted by a lack of local markets; there, more than half (51%) of residents report traveling outside of their neighborhood to access a supermarket.  There is a 50% greater need among poor adults to travel to a grocery store than there is among non-poor adults (44% and 30% need to travel, respectively).

Consumption of Fast Foods and/or Local Take-Out

National trends show that over the past 25 years the percentage of food consumed outside of the home has increased dramatically.  Almost 47% of all food dollars are spent on prepared foods, with fast food being the largest single area of expenditure.  Fast food and take-out often have higher fat, salt, and sugar content than foods prepared in the home.  Furthermore, emerging research shows a correlation between the density of fast food outlets in a neighborhood and mortality from cardiac illnesses.  The scarcity of supermarkets and other food retail in Philadelphia has affected the food economy and food choices of residents throughout the city.  In Philadelphia, more than 277,000 adults consume fast food and/or local take-out three or more times a week.

- Adults living in Upper and Lower North Philadelphia are more likely to consume fast food and/or local take-out compared to other areas of the city (29.8% and 33.4%, respectively); Adults in these communities consume fast food and/or local take-out almost 3 times a week.


The data show a strong association between poverty, poor health, and lack of access to fresh food through supermarkets.  Reduced access to supermarkets corresponds to higher levels of consumption of take-out food and decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables.  Simply stated, access to fresh, high quality food is not equitable throughout the region, and this inequality has profound public health implications.  A concerted effort to improve access to fresh food for the most vulnerable populations could have an important effect on public health concerns stemming from poor diet. 

For a full copy of the Food Geography report, please click here.  If you have a question about the report, please contact The Food Trust at or Francine Axler at

*Note: In determining a resident’s poverty status, the Federal Poverty Guidelines were followed.  A resident was considered “poor” if he/she was below the income threshold for their household size.


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