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W&M study: with childhood obesity, where you live matters

  • Jennifer Mellor
    Jennifer Mellor  Mellor (R) is the director of the Schroeder Center for Health Policy responsible for the study.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A study conducted by the Schroeder Center for Health Policy at the College of William & Mary shows a direct correlation between childhood obesity and the proximity of a child’s home to fast food restaurants. The study’s findings will be featured in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.

“Controlling for certain household characteristics and certain child characteristics we found that living closer to fast food restaurants was significantly and positively associated with obesity,” said Jennifer Mellor, director of the Schroeder Center of Health Policy and associate professor of economics at William & Mary.

The study looked at children and communities in southeastern Virginia. Data included height and weight information from children which was linked to known addresses. Those addresses were then mapped with geographic information systems (GIS) and examined in relation to fast food restaurant locations.

Mellor noted having the address data in combination with the height and weight information was a unique opportunity, and one of the primary differences between the Schroeder study and prior similar work.

“Often in national surveys that have kids’ heights and weights, you know a little bit about where kids live – you might know a city or county – but an address, there’s a gold mine of information in that especially with the ability to geocode individuals to a specific point on the globe,” she said.

According to Carrie Dolan, a William & Mary research analyst and epidemiologist who coauthored the study, researchers have suspected for some time that access to fast food plays a role in childhood obesity. Previous studies have shown that high school students who have access to fast food in close proximity to their schools are more prone to childhood obesity.

This study, however, is the first to empirically show a direct correlation with physical proximity to fast food restaurants while at the same time controlling for household socioeconomic status, an important influence on both obesity and proximity to restaurants.

“We view that as one of the key contributions this study had…few other studies that we know of were adequately able control for income. What we are finding is that the association between proximity to fast food restaurants and obesity persists even after you adjust for income,” Dolan said.

Mellor hopes the study will lead to more effective policy. This is the second Schroeder Center study to look at different types of environmental influences on childhood obesity. The first, published in the journal Health Economics, examined the effects of the household environment, in particular, factors influencing mothers’ consumption of food and other items. Results from both studies show that community and household environments both matter and make a case for thinking broadly in health policy to make changes across the environments.

“There’s not just one ‘Band-Aid solution’ that we can say ‘oh, if we fixed this then childhood obesity would go away,’” Mellor noted. “Studies coming out of the Schroeder Center are consistently showing reform is going to have to be a very multi-prong effort.”

The Schroeder Center for Health Policy was formed in 2003 to support the faculty and students of the College of William & Mary in public analysis of health and healthcare issues. The center is housed within the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and was inaugurated with a generous gift from Cliff and Lois Schroeder.