A new SuperFresh store in Philadelphia

Many families have a steady flow of fruits and vegetables in their homes, as they're the perfect accompaniment to a healthy lifestyle.

Across the U.S., access to healthy and fresh foods usually entails no more than a trip to the neighborhood grocery store. But sadly, this isn't the case for many Americans in lower-income neighborhoods.

A study conducted by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that over 33 percent of adults making less than $15,000 per year suffered from obesity, compared to 24.6 percent of the working class earning $50,000 per year or more.

The link between income and health has been examined for many years, as many low-income neighborhoods still have a disproportionately lower number  of grocery stores, compared to wealthier areas.

The issue of low-income adults not being able to access or afford healthier foods is naturally passed on to their children.

20 million kids

PhotoAccording to a report, almost 20 million school children receive free lunch through the National School Lunch Program, and although it provides kids with something to eat, free lunch still doesn't base its menu items on nutrition.

The Child Nutrition Act regulates exactly what the lunch program can serve, but greasy foods like pizza and French fries are nevertheless served daily, since they fall within the government's standard of nutrition.

Other findings also show how school children are impacted by low access to healthy foods. A report ran by the Children's Defense Fund showed nearly 45 percent of obese children ages 10 to 17 live in low-income neighborhoods.

But some efforts have been recently made to help students in lower-income areas get access to fresh produce.

Last summer Supervalu, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other stores in low-income areas committed to upping the amount of fresh fruits and veggies they offer.

Some cities like New York are even offering financial incentives for supermarkets who choose to open in low-income neighborhoods.

Non-profits help

PhotoMany non-profit organizations are also doing their part to help communities get better foods delivered, and they're also assisting with getting school children better educated on nutrition and fitness.

Life in Sync, a non-profit based in Wyomissing, Pa., provides nationwide funding to assemble programs to conduct shows and educational workshops that teach kids about healthy eating and nutrition. And according to Cynthia Lynn, president of Life in Sync, the programs are having a very positive effect.

"I believe change has to have the word fun in it," she said. We have streamlined the grant process to make it easy for schools to apply. Our targeted mission is to reach children inside schools, but outside the classroom- interactively inexpensively and, based on feedback, extremely effectively."

ConsumerAffairs spoke with Lynn to get her take on the food desert problem in certain communities, and what consumers can do to ensure healthy items are accessible to all neighborhoods, not just the affluent ones.

"Childhood obesity affects all children and families at all income levels. It's about changing behaviors with knowledge. Then joining our healthy 'in-the-know' movement'," she said.

"We live in a society where our children are more comfortable eating neon green squeezable yogurts than freshly picked broccoli crowns," Lynn adds. "Packaged foods claiming to be healthy are readily available to busy parents who are trying to do the right thing. Hey, the packaging says so- and so did that healthy-looking woman in the ad on TV."

Lynn also says the issue isn't with children not wanting to eat healthier; they just need to be properly educated, and given a slight nudge towards a healthier lifestyle.

"We need to get back to cooking and eating fresh foods, period," she explains. We have learned firsthand through HealthBarn USA assemblies, that when students were asked who is interested in being healthy?’ 80 percent of kids raise their hands! And their actions match up, when they try and like many foods that they have never been exposed to before. They say 'this healthy stuff actually tastes good....I can do this'! "

What to do

PhotoWhat can consumers do? 

"Demand it!" Lynn said. "Band with other 'in the know' friends. Take photos of healthier options. Even Wal-Mart and McDonalds are carrying products with natural ingredients. Why? Other 'in the know' consumers suggested that they do. And retailers are finding that healthier options are great revenue generators."

HealthBarn USA is among the first assembly program to receive funding from Life in Sync, and according to Lynn, the programs are having huge amounts of success with its presentations on nutrition.

"Stacey Antine, MS, RD, founder of HealthBarn USA, energetically facilitates the 90-minute educational and highly-interactive programs which include exercise, and student volunteers as expert taste testers for each of the five food groups. At the end, all students get the opportunity to be taste testers," says Lynn.

But how successful with these kids be in passing on this new health information to their households?

"These empowered kids are going home from HealthBarn assemblies saying they're only going to drink white milk from now on," she adds. "They leave the assemblies with the group mission to try one new thing that is whole natural and comes from the ground, and give their thumb report back to the teacher. One third grader wrote that he tried radishes of his own free will and liked them. So mama bear at home can create radish recipes with her son."

"Teachers and kids can be creative," adds Lynn. "Let the kids decide what they care to focus on. If we all ate things that are good for our skin, hair, teeth, and bones, we'd be healthier and happier."

Neighborhoods of all income levels aren't receiving the proper education about nutrition, says Lynn. And if they are getting some education, the information isn't being facilitated in the right way.

"Nutrition education is not being taught in the school consistently", she says. And if it is, many of the times it's in a lecture format based on macronutrients. The staying power of the information lasts until the test. An interactive format seems to work."

Any improvements

On whether low income areas will see any improvements in getting better access to healthier foods, Lynn says she's cautiously optimistic, but changes are still needed.

"Nutrition education is starting to take priority in schools, but the environment has not changed to support new knowledge. The food service options need to change. I'd be so radical as to say the healthier option meals be lower in price. The pocketbook is a strong motivator when change has to be nudged."

And children are the perfect ones to start that change, says Lynn.

 "What better place than K-8 schools? They're not engrained with 50 -year habits. Plus, their bodies are changing. They're finely tuned to how they look and feel," she explained.

But not only do the children and their parents need to make an effort towards healthier eating and access to better foods. It's really a societal problem, which will require all of society's collective effort to make a sweeping improvement.

"Everyone's mindset needs to change so that the environment can support optimal health. Our society is not healthy or happy. It's time for a radical change. Change is the loss of past limitations," said Lynn.

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