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Labeling healthy food in low-income communities

Collaborative team aims to improve knowledge, consumption of healthy foods
healthy food

Over the past few decades, obesity has become a growing public health concern, affecting the quality of life of millions and contributing to health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. The adverse health consequences of obesity hit low-income communities especially hard, as reflected in higher rates of excess weight related diseases. Limited resources, especially lack of access to healthy food options, further complicate matters. To this end, public health researchers plan to use corner stores in low-income neighborhoods to increase healthy food consumption and educate the public about healthy eating.

With funding from the Texas Medical Foundation, Lisako McKyer, PhD, associate dean for Climate and Diversity and associate professor in the Texas A&M School of Public Health, and a team of colleagues are working on a project in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, the Texas Southern University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Children and Neighbors Defeat Obesity Houston (CAN DO Houston), a Houston-based organization that strives to prevent obesity, especially in children.

One of the most effective ways to reduce obesity rates in the population is to promote healthier eating habits. This, however, requires not only the availability of healthy food, but also for people to be informed about healthy food options.

“This project is meant to increase healthy food awareness in low-income communities in Houston,” said McKyer. “We will work with 10 corner stores in selected communities to provide health education materials and implement a traffic light-like system for labeling healthy food choices.”

The labeling system, known as ‘Go, Slow, Whoa!’ will be used on packaged foods, and indicate food options that are the healthiest (Go), those that should be consumed in moderation (Slow) and packaged foods that people should avoid (Whoa). In addition, the team will use a community-based participatory approach, using research staff and health educators who themselves are members of targeted communities inclusive approaches to engage other residents. Corner store staff will also be trained to identify which foods are healthiest, help educate customers and maintain the labeling system.

At the end of their one-year project, the research team hopes to see significantly increased sales of healthy food products and improvements in the proportion of corner store customers with knowledge about nutritional values of food. In the stores themselves, they aim to increase the presence and visibility of healthy foods and health education materials by at least 15 percent. In addition, the researchers intend to inform statewide food policies by creating a report for policy makers and other stakeholders.

“The lessons learned from this project will improve understanding of public knowledge and behaviors related to healthy eating and help develop new ways to promote healthier food choices and maintain a straightforward labeling system for packaged foods,” McKyer said. “More importantly, the benefits will be reaped by populations who are most disadvantaged by the status quo. So we make an impact where it matters most.”

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