Research draws link between heart disease and fresh food accessibility

-  A lack of access to fresh foods in nearby grocery stores, for the first time, has been established as a link to the early onset of heart disease.

New research published in the American Heart Association’s Journal “Circulation” shows what public health advocates have always suspected but couldn’t connect.

The study involved 5,950 adults over a 12-year period and explored how the limited availability of recreational facilities, healthy food stores and neighborhood walkability may have affected the early onset of hardening of the arteries around the heart.

“We found that healthy food stores within one mile of their home was the only significant factor that reduced or slowed the progression of calcium buildup in coronary arteries,” said Ella August, co-lead author from the University of Michigan.

“We don’t think that was surprising,” said Leah Gardener, good food access manager for the Minnesota chapter of the American Heart Association.

Access to fresh and healthy foods is increasingly becoming a critical issue in Minnesota.  The state has a $21 billion agriculture industry, the fifth highest in the nation.  Yet, an April 2016 study by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank and Wilder Research found that 1.6 million Minnesotans have low retail access to healthy foods. In other words, they don’t live close to a full service grocery store.

“We are losing grocery stores, especially in rural Minnesota,” said Gardner.  “Grocery stores are sort of the anchor businesses in smaller communities and they’re going away. There’s some research among current store owners and a majority of them are not planning to be around for more than ten years.”

The Federal Reserve Bank research found that 16 percent of Minnesota’s census tracts qualify as federally designated food deserts.  The study found that counties in rural Minnesota have a disproportionate number of food deserts relative to their total population and geographic area.

But the Fed study also showed that price is a bigger barrier for middle to low income families to purchasing healthy foods.

“Price is a significant component to this,” added Gardner. “That’s one of the differences, too, between a grocery store and a convenience store.  They may have some limited amount of healthy foods, but they’re also more out of reach in terms of price.

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