Food deserts are generally considered to be poor urban neighborhoods with few sources of healthy food and too many fast food restaurants. Studies have suggested that food deserts contribute to the obesity epidemic. But recent reports say there are plenty of healthy food sources in these neighborhoods, suggesting that the food desert/obesity link may be bogus.
Food deserts and obesity
Public health activists have criticized the nutritional value of food available in poor neighborhoods for years. Eliminating food deserts is a key plank in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity. In theory, improving access to healthy foods will encourage more people to eat healthy. But two food desert studies cast doubt on whether the phenomenon exists, as well as whether better access to fresh fruit and vegetables can reduce the rate of childhood obesity.
Are food deserts a myth?
Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California sought to identify food deserts and the obesity rate within them. They used a federal study of 8,000 children to find out where they lived and how much they weighed, comparing that data to the location of businesses selling food. Census tracts were used to define the income level of neighborhoods.
As expected, Lee found nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores in poor neighborhoods than wealthier ones. Unexpectedly, the poor neighborhoods had nearly twice as many supermarkets and local grocers per square mile as well. She also found no significant differences in childhood obesity by neighborhood, race or poverty.
Do healthy food choices matter?
Another study by the RAND Corporation examined data on the height, weight and diet of more than 13,000 California children. Those factors were compared with data on the type of food businesses nearby. Children living close to healthy food sources were no thinner and those living close to fast food chains and convenience stores were no fatter.
Chicago’s food desert
Mari Gallagher, a Chicago food desert expert who wrote an influential 2006 report on the topic that may have influenced Ms. Obama, disagrees. In her report, Gallagher found that not only did residents living in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods travel the farthest on average to reach any type of grocery store, they traveled twice as far to reach a grocery store as a fast-food restaurant
She recently gave a presentation in using driver’s license and body mass index data that showed the farther away people are from mainstream food sources in Chicago, the higher their BMI score.
More than improving access needed
Despite the correlation Gallagher drew between food deserts and obesity, it doesn’t necessarily mean access to healthy food will make people healthier. Whether food deserts exist or not, eating healthy is often more expensive; and takes more time with careful shopping, learning cooking skills and preparing balanced meals.
To Ms. Obama’s credit, the Let’s Move program is a comprehensive response that in addition to improving access to healthy food, includes educating people about healthy diets, improving food in schools and increasing physical activity.
When it comes to food deserts and obesity, the federal government wants to lead the horse to water, and hopes to make it drink as well.