Residents of the Northern San Joaquin Valley live in a region that produces an abundance of fruits and vegetables.
They also live in an environment of Burger Kings, Fosters Freezes, Taco Bells and am-pm minimarkets. And a new study suggests it's affecting their waistlines.
Stanislaus County has 5½ times more businesses selling deep fried food and packaged sweets than those offering fresh produce, placing it second behind San Bernardino County as the county with the highest concentration of fast food outlets in the state.
Its obesity rate of 32 percent is tops among the 24 California counties with a population of more than 250,000, and it has the third-highest percentage of people suffering from diabetes among those counties.
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In San Joaquin County, where 29 percent of the population is obese, there are 4½ unhealthy food outlets for every one selling healthy food, the study says. The county's diabetes rate is ranked fourth among those 24 counties.
The report was released Tuesday by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonpartisan organization that tries to raise awareness about public health issues. The center released a similar study last year on the state's fast food landscape, but this one looked at the correlation between a high density of fast food outlets and health issues in those communities.
"Clearly, the obesity crisis in California can no longer be seen only as a fight over personal choices," said Dr. Victor Rubin of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy institute that assisted with the study. "Families who live in communities with choices limited to high-calorie foods and beverages face substantially greater health risks."
'Designed for disease'
The researchers took data from the 2005 California Health Interview Survey to assess the availability of fast food near the homes of people who participated in the survey. They used geographic information software to count the fast food outlets within a half mile of people in inner cities, a mile of those in suburban areas, and five miles of those in rural areas.
Adults living in communities inundated with fast food outlets had a 20 percent higher prevalence of obesity and 23 percent higher rate of diabetes.
Although a limited choice of food is often a problem in low-income communities, the correlation between a higher fast food index and higher disease rate was seen in geographic areas regardless of income categories, the study said.
The report suggested that communities with an abundance of fast food outlets are "designed for disease."
It called on local policy-makers to offer incentives to grocery chains to put stores in lower-income communities. It also called for policies to encourage the sale of fresh produce by small-scale markets, mobile vendors and farmers markets, and recommended that cities overwhelmed by fast food eateries pass zoning laws to limit them.
"I am not surprised by the results of the study," said Phoebe Leung, a health educator for the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency. "The county has also consistently had a high death rate due to heart disease."
A push toward healthy eating
Two initiatives are under way in Stanislaus County to address childhood obesity and other health issues.
County staff involved in a Community of Excellence project funded by the state Department of Public Health will do a health assessment in three areas: west Modesto, the area around Ceres High School and neighborhoods near Wakefield Elementary School in Turlock.
Staff, among other things, will look at the number of parks, fast food restaurants and the marketing of fast food in those areas, Leung said. After completing the assessment, they will hold community meetings to ask residents what changes they would like to see. It could be less fast food and more fresh produce, menu labeling or safer parks where children can play.
The West Modesto King-Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative is pushing a healthy eating and active living initiative funded by Kaiser Permanente. This summer, the collaborative hopes to have booths selling fresh produce once a week at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on Martin Luther King Drive.
The program has given baskets of fruit to small, independent stores in west Modesto so they can sell some produce to customers.
One participating store owner said Tuesday that the apples, oranges and bananas, priced at 20 cents apiece, haven't moved very fast. So more public education may be necessary.
"You will get a few customers who buy singles, one apple or a banana to snack on," said Moses Nasser of Alex & Son's Market.
Nasser said it wouldn't pay to open a produce section unless he expanded the small store, and the city recently denied his application to do so.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.