In recent years, research and public policy attention has increasingly focused on understanding whether modifiable aspects of the local food environment - the types and composition of food outlets families have proximate access to - are drivers of and potential solutions to the problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Given that much of the earlier published research has documented greater concentrations of fast-food outlets alongside limited access to large grocery stores in neighborhoods with higher shares of racial/ethnic minority groups and residents living in poverty, differences in retail food contexts may indeed exacerbate notable child obesity disparities along socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines. This paper examines whether the lack of access to more healthy food retailers and/or the greater availability of "unhealthy" food purveyors in residential neighborhoods explains children's risk of excessive weight gain, and whether differential food availability explains obesity disparities. I do so by analyzing a national survey of U.S. children followed over elementary school (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Cohort) who are linked to detailed, longitudinal food availability measures from a comprehensive business establishment database (the National Establishment Time Series). I find that children who live in residentially poor and minority neighborhoods are indeed more likely to have greater access to fast-food outlets and convenience stores. However, these neighborhoods also have greater access to other food establishments that have not been linked to increased obesity risk, including large-scale grocery stores. When examined in a multi-level modeling framework, differential exposure to food outlets does not independently explain weight gain over time in this sample of elementary school-aged children. Variation in residential food outlet availability also does not explain socioeconomic and racial/ethnic differences. It may thus be important to reconsider whether food access is, in all settings, a salient factor in understanding obesity risk among young children.
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