Abstract: Exploring the Impact of Virginia’s Major Food Deserts on Health Behavior

Studies show that individuals of low socioeconomic status may face barriers that impede them from being able to live a healthy lifestyle. For example, low-income and inner city neighborhoods are often in the center of “food deserts:” places that lack healthy food options and tend to be filled with fast food restaurants. (Walker, Keane, and Burke 2010, 876-84).The following is a list of the eight major food desert counties in Virginia: Fredericksburg, Hampton, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Petersburg, Richmond County, and Wise County. They have been identified based on the percentage of the population in that county that is low income, lack transportation, and are SNAP eligible. Last summer, I analyzed health data in those counties in order to determine if there was a relationship between health statistics and food deserts.  Surprisingly,  obesity rates were not significantly different in the eight major food deserts as compared to the state of Virginia as a whole, indicating that more data is needed to support the idea that living in a food desert can negatively impact one’s health. I then looked at Health Factor rankings of all the counties in Virginia, which take into account health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment in each county. Four of these major food deserts fall into the bottom 15% of rankings, and even the highest ranked food desert, Harrisonburg, ranks at 49th, which is only in the top 37% of all counties. When the circumstances of each county is factored in, all eight food deserts fall into the bottom 40% of rankings, with half of the food deserts falling into the bottom 8% of rankings. As shown by this data, there is evidence that there is a relationship between food deserts and poor health.

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