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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

In Your Health on this Monday, we'll talk about treating severe asthma without medication. First: How to increase access to healthy food in low income neighborhoods. You may have heard of food deserts, those areas where nutritious food can be hard to find but fast food may be plentiful. In recent years, there's been an effort to build better stores in those neighborhoods.

But as NPR's Patti Neighmond report, a new study suggests that just building stores may not be enough.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: There's a glistening new supermarket in a low income neighborhood in Philadelphia. It's in a community that used to be a food desert. But today, with over 45,000 square feet, the new store brims with healthy choices including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But researchers wanted to know if people actually shopped there.

STEPHEN MATTHEWS: The presumption is that if you build a store that people are going to come.

NEIGHMOND: Stephen Matthews is a professor at Penn State University. He surveyed residents of the community before and after the store opened, and what he found was something of a surprise.

MATTHEWS: We don't find any difference at all. The fruit and vegetable consumption patterns both before and after the store opened were similar. We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.

NEIGHMOND: Now, to be fair, the time was short. The store was only open six months before residents were surveyed. Matthews says most knew the store was there and that it offered healthy food. But only 26 percent said it was their regular go-to market.

MATTHEWS: There's many other things have to accompany that. It can't just be: We build it they're going to come. It has to be paralleled with other kinds of interventions that perhaps are more targeted both at the store or the community or individuals.

NEIGHMOND: Matthews says building the store is just the first step. What needs to happen next is something that's actually happening in many states across the country. Take this corner store in East Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NEIGHMOND: The Euclid Market is part of a public health research project at UCLA that converts corner stores into hubs of healthy food. And here, UCLA public health researcher Alex Ortega says they're doing a lot more than just converting the store.

ALEX ORTEGA: We've had cooking demonstrations where we've prepared smoothies, healthy snacks, fruit salads, vegetables and green salads, quesadillas that are loaded with vegetables.

NEIGHMOND: Cooking classes are actually inside or just outside in front of the stores. Cooking class is only part of the project's reach. High school students learn about nutrition. Posters, touting the benefits of fresh healthy food, hang in the stores on billboards and at bus stops.

Ortega says nutrition education is critical because without healthy options, many residents never really learned how to prepare healthy meals.

ORTEGA: I had a mother who approached me to tell me that she had learned a lot from the cooking demonstration about healthy eating and that because of what she learned about nutrition and about reducing saturated fats, sodium, increasing fiber intake in her diets, she lost 20 pounds and her daughter lost over 10 pounds.

NEIGHMOND: An important achievement in an area rife with obesity and all of its related health problems including diabetes. Data is still being collected at the UCLA Corner Store Project. But the hope, says Ortega, is that creating demand for healthy food, along with access, will make the difference in what residents eat and ultimately in their weight and health.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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