LOS BANOS -- The city could do better with its access to healthy foods, according to the Merced County Department of Public Health.
The agency unveiled preliminary findings of an assessment Merced County conducted during the summer. The health department studied south Merced, Winton, Dos Palos and Los Banos for access and promotion of healthy foods and opportunities to walk and exercise in the community.
In Los Banos, the study concentrated on the area north of Highway 152 and west of Highway 165. According to the study, which included only one side of Pacheco Boulevard, Los Banos has one fast-food restaurant for every 600 residents. The statistic is visible in Los Banos residents' waistlines.
"The problem in Los Banos is almost 50 percent of sixth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are overweight and obese. In Merced County, over 50 percent of our adults are overweight and obese," health education administrator Cindy Valencia told the Community Resource Council on Wednesday. "There's a tremendous cost to these things."
Valencia and county health department epidemiologist Kelly Rose said they studied seven markets in Los Banos for availability and visibility of fruits and vegetables and promotion of healthy foods. The pair said two of the markets were considered to be doing a good job. They also said they wanted to study many more stores in Los Banos but were denied access by business owners.
The two markets that are doing a good job met criteria that included carrying a variety of reasonably priced produce in good condition, as well as whole wheat bread and brown rice.
Rose and Valencia also observed areas near schools.
"We looked at mobile vendors by schools -- were there ice cream trucks or little churro vendors waiting for kids to get out?" Rose said. "We went to the elementary schools, and we did find some ice cream vendors who were there when school let out."
Rose said she and Valencia were impressed with the Seventh Street overcrossing near Westside Union Elementary School, because it lets children get to Pacheco Park and avoid traffic.
Rose said downtown Los Banos is very walkable. She said the city does not have a lot of litter, and Henry Miller Plaza is "nice." She said Los Banos has attractive parks and a lot of strips of grass that have been turned into parks.
Advertising also is important. Rose showed a slide of a store in Merced that advertised produce and water, as well as sodas. She said that sends a mixed message to consumers, and she encourages stores not to advertise healthy and unhealthy items together.
Rose and Valencia also encountered stores in Los Banos that carry produce that's not immediately visible to shoppers.
"I was recently at a conference and they said they did a healthy makeover," Valencia said. "They found when they moved the produce upfront, they made more money. We need to have that relationship with the grocery stores, help them understand (that) placement of fruits and vegetables will help them."