If you’re living in Merced County, chances are unhealthy food is going to be a lot easier to find than nutritional food. In some Merced and Los Banos neighborhoods, the amount of fast food restaurants outweigh the number of playgrounds and parks.
Local health officials found this problem has a direct impact on illnesses that are leading killers in Merced County, like heart disease and diabetes, that are seen as preventable.
Both these diseases are able to be combated or controlled with the proper nutrition, said Cynthia Lopez, a dietitian at Golden Valley Health Centers. If more people were eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains, the obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates would go down in the county.
“What we see a lot in Golden Valley is individuals don’t have access to healthy foods, don’t have transportation or see foods and don’t know what to do with them,” she told the Sun-Star in a recent phone interview.
In Merced County, heart disease is the number one killer and diabetes the seventh, according to data from the Merced County Department of Public Health. Rates of heart disease and diabetes in the county have also been consistently higher than the state and national average.
An analysis by the department gives a snapshot of seven different neighborhoods throughout the county: downtown Merced, southeast Merced, southwest Merced, Los Banos, Livingston, Winton and Dos Palos.
The analysis breaks down the demographics of each neighborhood by how easy it is to find healthy foods and places to exercise.
What we see a lot in Golden Valley is individuals don’t have access to healthy foods, don't have transportation or see foods and don't know what to do with them.
Cynthia Lopez, dietitian at Golden Valley Health Centers
In all seven neighborhoods, there are more fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which are prone to selling foods high in fat and sugar, than grocery stores and farmers markets, where more nutritious foods are found.
In southeast Merced, 91 percent of places selling food were considered unhealthy, 85 percent are unhealthy in the southwest Merced neighborhood and 88 percent in the downtown area.
Most neighborhoods analyzed that were outside of the Merced city limit had lower percentages of unhealthy food sources: 78 percent in Winton, 73 percent in Los Banos, 80 percent in Livingston and 86 percent in Dos Palos.
In some of the neighborhoods analyzed, fast food restaurants and convenience stores out number the amount of parks, playgrounds and supermarkets.
In the Los Banos neighborhood, there are six fast food restaurants and three convenience stores compared to the three playgrounds or parks and two supermarkets, the study found. Livingston has one fast food restaurant, convenience store and grocery store but no playgrounds or parks.
Throughout southeast Merced, there are four fast food restaurants and six convenience stores versus only one park or playground and grocery store, according to the data. Southwest Merced has three fast food restaurants, four convenience stores, six parks and playgrounds and one grocery store.
High poverty rates correlate with the high amount of health-related diseases, Lopez said, because part of it has to do with access to nutritious food.
If we look around schools in Merced County we see more convenience stores in low poverty areas. If (kids) want an after school snack they’re more likely to go in a convenience store and grab a bag a chips than yogurt or fruit.
Cynthia Lopez, dietitian at Golden Valley Health Centers
“If we look around schools in Merced County, we see more convenience stores in low poverty areas,” Lopez said. “If (kids) want an after school snack, they’re more likely to go in a convenience store and grab a bag a chips than yogurt or fruit.”
More than 55 percent of people are living at or below the federal poverty level in every neighborhood analyzed in the report.
Advertisements for cheap unhealthy or fast food is another component that doesn’t support long-term health improvements of a community, said Stephanie Russell, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health.
Downtown Merced was the only neighborhood in the report that promoted some type of healthy food advertisement around schools and playgrounds. Although, only 17 percent of ads did so.
“Unhealthy options are easy to come by,” Russell said. “I think we’re just so used to seeing so many ads for cheap fast foods. It’s shocking.”
Unhealthy options are easy to come by. I think we’re just so used to seeing so many ads for cheap fast foods. It’s shocking.
Stephanie Russell, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health
Part of the reason many fast food options are found around major highways, freeways and busy streets in Merced is because fast food retailers look for spots where travelers are passing through, said Frank Quintero, director of economic development for the city of Merced.
“Grocery stores draw from a larger customer base and rely on pass-by traffic, so there are fewer grocery stores,” he said.
In Merced County, grocery stores are spread apart and in open areas, Lopez said, and to many who rely on walking or public transit, it becomes an issue, because “when you’re limited in what you can carry, it’s very difficult to live off of vegetables,” she said.
Out of the seven neighborhoods analyzed, there is only one grocery store in southeast Merced that is located by public transit.
For people who are limited to one or two bags of groceries, Lopez said, they are more likely to grab foods that are more filling, higher in calories and processed.