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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Texas Investigates Impact of Food Deserts

How does access to fresh, nutritious food affect risk for obesity and chronic disease? And what role does poverty play?

Those questions led Dr. Jennifer Salinas, to study food environments, specifically those in Texas. Dr. Salinas is assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health Brownsville Regional Campus.The School of Public Health is part of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Jennifer Salinas

[Photo: Dr. Jennifer Salinas]

The Lone Star State has one of the highest rates of obesity in the United States at 29.2 percent, and qualifies as a “food desert,” in Dr. Salinas’ latest study here: Dr. Salinas explains what that means for Texas and for public health researchers targeting obesity:

So what exactly is a food desert?

“What we consider a food desert is a place where access to healthy foods is difficult, usually in lower socioeconomic areas,” explained Dr. Salinas. “There is a lack of what we consider healthy foods, grocery stores and places that typically sell fresh produce and meats. Increasing evidence suggests that the distance someone has to travel to a grocery store is linked to his or her intake of healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and that living closer to fast food outlets is linked with an intake of unhealthy food.”

And you found most of Texas is a food desert?

“Yes. We used data from the Centers for Disease Control and rated every census tract in the state of Texas, from zero (unhealthy areas with limited access to fruits and vegetables) to 100 (healthy). In Texas, there were very few census tracts that are in the healthier range. Even in cities like Austin, which you would think would be healthy, we didn’t find that. The vast area of Texas is in the food desert range.”

“We also compared border communities to non-border. What we found was that the major metro areas of the state — Austin, Dallas, Corpus Christi, and Houston — had a higher concentration of lower scores, which was indicative of food deserts. We found slightly higher healthy numbers in the border metro areas of El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville, and McAllen.”

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