Change the Environment, Change the Behaviors

Often, people want to take healthy actions, but don’t have the ability or opportunity to do so. Public health professionals trying to prevent obesity in the inner city have long lamented poor neighborhoods’ lack of availability of fresh produce and healthy food choices at reasonable prices. When there is nowhere nearby to buy healthy food, it often doesn’t get bought.

Public radio show Marketplace had a story today about how British supermarket chain Tesco plans to open a hundred stores in the Western U.S, many of them in low income neighborhoods that the local supermarkets have stayed away from. The piece highlighted the dire state of food shopping in a Downtown Los Angeles market:

The market’s single aisle is too narrow for us to walk side by side. We squeezed past a display of lettuce greens turning sickly shades of brown.

The refrigerators are stocked with sugary yogurt, lard, packets of American cheese slices, and gallons of milk — just about to expire — for $4.

Tesco will be opening a dozen “Fresh and Easy” markets in the LA area, which will offer fresh produce, meats and prepared meals. Fresh and Easy’s marketing director, Simon Uwans, found that

almost irrespective of the type of household we went into, people were telling us what they wanted was fresh wholesome food and they wanted it to be affordable and they wanted it to be in their neighborhood.

Local health educator Rosa Giron is quoted as saying, “This community is an emergency for obesity and diabetes for childrens, because they don’t eat right.” And based on the infrastructure, a communication program telling people the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables would not get very far.

Had Tesco not decided that this was a commercial marketing opportunity, perhaps social marketers could have figured out a way to change the shopping environment to facilitate the purchase and consumption of healthy food. Farmers markets are one approach that have been used successfully. Perhaps community produce co-ops would work. Elementary school-based community vegetable gardens, partnerships with local stores that start to offer healthier choices, portable “root cellars” that keep veggies fresher longer… all of these are ways of changing the environment, which would in turn make healthy behavior changes more likely.

Communications are not always the answer. See how you can change the environment itself to make it more conducive to the behavior you want to promote.

Photo Credit: mleak

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