disparities in the food environment of new york city public schools

Background: Studies of the food environment near schools have focused on fast food. Research is needed that describes patterns of exposure to a broader range of food outlet types, and that examines how the neighborhood built environment shapes these patterns.

Methods: National chain and local fast food restaurants, pizzerias, small grocery stores (“bodegas”), and convenience stores within 400 meters of public schools in New York City were identified using 2005 Dun & Bradstreet business data. Associations between student poverty and race/ethnicity and food outlet density, adjusted for school level, population density, commercial zoning, and public transit access, were evaluated in 2009 using negative binomial regression.

Results: New York City’s public school students have high access to unhealthy food near their schools: 92.9% of students had a bodega, 70.6% had a pizzeria, 48.9% had a convenience store, 43.2% had a national chain restaurant, and 33.9% had a local fast food restaurant within 400 meters. Racial/ethnic minority and low-income students were more likely to attend schools with unhealthy food outlets nearby. Bodegas were the most common source of unhealthy food near New York City schools, and were more prevalent near schools attended by low-income and racial/ethnic minority students; this association remained significant after adjustment for built environment characteristics.

Conclusion: Small grocery stores are prevalent in low-income urban neighborhoods and should be included in studies of the food environment near schools. Although walkable neighborhoods may enhance health by promoting physical activity, they are also associated with high exposure to unhealthy food outlets.

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