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Dr. Yancy’s Prescription: Addressing Healthy Food Access


As one of America’s leading cardiovascular physicians, Dr. Clyde Yancy regularly travels to hospitals across the United States to meet with patients and confer with colleagues.

In nearly every city he’s visited, Yancy is struck by the things he sees around the hospital. He regularly spots things like fast food outlets or convenience stores. What he doesn’t often find are places to buy affordable, healthy food.

It’s a damning message for patients, Yancy says, who are told by doctors that they need to eat better to improve their health, but can’t find the nutritious food they need from the moment they exit the hospital.

“It really is the reason why our health as a country isn’t where it should be,” Yancy tells the Inside Track. “We’re eating our way to heart disease, which is not a good thing.”

Between 25 and 30 million Americans live in communities that do not provide adequate access to healthy food retailers within a reasonable distance of their home, according to a recent report released by the Food Trust and PolicyLink. Residents of these underserved communities, commonly known as food deserts, are instead surrounded by unhealthy food retail options. Thus, they often buy and consume unhealthy food, negatively impacting their health and leading to conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

It’s a cycle that Yancy wants to break.

Yancy leads efforts to research heart-related conditions, train physicians and treat cardiovascular patients in his role as the Professor of Medicine and Chief of Cardiology at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine. Prior to joining Northwestern, Yancy served as medical director for the Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and is a past president of the American Heart Association.

Simply put, Yancy knows his stuff — and he knows that the proliferation of unhealthy but easily accessible foods, especially in low-income and minority communities, is driving the obesity epidemic.

At minimum, more must be done to provide informed choices to the community, Yancy says. But efforts also must focus on making it easier (and more attractive) for people to eat healthy food, including by increasing healthy food access and addressing the role food marketing plays in driving people’s choices. 

“I think that somehow or another, we need to break the social biology,” Yancy says.

Although the challenge appears daunting, Yancy says there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, he is impressed with the work that organizations such as the Alliance for a Healthier Generation have done to improve the nutritional quality of food and beverages served in schools, including the removal of sugar-sweetened beverages from vending machines. Combined with efforts to educate kids about the importance of good nutrition, there is a groundswell of support building among young people to improve the nation’s overall food environment.

“I think that is a huge first step, because as it turns out, children can nudge the behavior of their parents and older siblings,” Yancy says.

Yancy also is encouraged by the ongoing effort to include calorie counts on fast food and other food retail establishments, noting that when people can see what it is they are consuming, they begin to take steps to change their behaviors.

Every American can play a role in improving food access, Yancy says. When people stand up and demand healthier choices — and “speak according to where they spend their dollars” — things will ultimately improve, he argues.

“The most powerful tool we have in this country that has always worked incredibly well is the will of the people,” Yancy says. “It’s amazing how quickly everyone listens.”