Need For Grocery Stores Grows as Number of At-Risk Babies Remains Stagnant

Thank you to our summer intern, Minhsang Dinh! As she wrapped up her internship with us, she prepared this blog examining the link between low-birth weight babies and food deserts in the District. 


The District of Columbia, with all of its five star restaurants, sporadic rain showers and buildings that stretch as high as the eye can see, can still be described in part as a desert: food desert to be exact. Food deserts describe areas that lack grocery stores to provide nutritious foods or in which citizens lack the accessibility to these facilities due to transportation and financial challenges. 


All individuals are affected by living in food deserts, but these food deserts take a significant toll on new mothers and their babies, illustrated by the fact that the percentage of low birth-weight babies has remained stagnant over the previous decade.


Low birth weight babies —infants born weighing less than 5.5 pounds — are generally the result of premature birth, multiple pregnancy, alcoholism, maternal obesity, drug abuse and placental malfunctions. We must consider the social and economic living environment of a child when we can delve deeper the trends pf low birth weight babies in our city. While medical issues are often the cause of low birth weight babies, the birth mother’s health and diet also correlate to the health of her child.


Mothers need bountiful nourishment to sufficiently care for their children. The need for local grocery and fresh food markets is extremely clear when you see mothers eating affordable fast food every day because that is the only food that is financially and physically accessible.  It isn’t a coincidence that Wards 7 and 8 have the highest percentage of low weight babies — 15 percent and 12 percent respectfully — and are areas with little to no local grocery stores within them. The continuous practice for some mothers to eat the most readily and cost effective meal at a fast food restaurant can build up and unknowingly affect their health and their children.  Fast food diets not only cause obesity in parents, but they can also cause high blood pressure, which can lead to a number of other complications with pregnancy, such as preeclampsia which causes the placenta to detach, resulting in premature birth. Premature babies are often low-birth weight babies, which may result in developmental issues, disabilities, and a greater risk of death within the first year.


In looking at the distribution of grocery stores in Washington D.C, a majority of grocery stores are clustered in Wards 2 and 3, while in other wards, such as Ward 7 and 8, they aren’t as plentiful. Companies are failing to locate more grocery stores in areas that lack current healthy foods and have higher percentages of their citizens living below the poverty line. Among racial groups, African American babies are most commonly born with a low birth weight — 12.8 percent— which is almost twice the chances of low birth weight babies from Latino families (7.1 percent) and Hispanic whites (7.0 percent). Not coincidentally, these ethnic and racial groups mostly live in wards that lack grocery stores and sufficient transportation outside of the area to food markets.


Parents want their children to be happy and healthy. All children and families, regardless of their zip code of residence, need access to and education about nutritious foods and healthy living in order to thrive. What happens when children don’t get the chance to face and overcome adversity to become their own heroes?


By creating more sufficient means of public transportation and constructing more grocery markets in areas such as Wards 7 and 8,  DC can improve accessibility to healthy food options for all residents. Taking action and providing the means for a healthy lifestyle will ensure better outcomes for all residents and can address some of the causes of low-birth weight babies.


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