‘Food deserts’ have become a favorite scapegoat of those seeking to find something, anything, to explain why Americans are getting ever fatter and sicker. And fixing these food deserts—a term used to refer to (mostly poor, urban) areas where fast food and convenience stores are omnipresent but fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy options scarce—has become a rallying cry for the likes of policy makers, health advocates and Michelle Obama. But two new studies reported in the New York Times suggest the whole concept of food deserts might be a myth, and unrelated to obesity.
Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert.”
Sturn’s study looked at data on the self-reported heights, weights and diets of 13,000 or so California children and teens in the California Health Interview Survey. The data included home and school addresses, which he compared to data on nearby food outlets. Ultimately, he found no relationship between the types of food sold in a community and obesity rates among its children and adolescents.
The other study, conducted by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, found poor neighborhoods do have nearly twice as many fast-food joints and convenience stores as wealthier neighborhoods, and also more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.
“It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who was not involved in the studies. “But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking.”
Previous studies have shown support for the idea of food deserts, but many were plagued with methodological problems. Some researchers counted only fast food restaurants and large supermarkets, missing small grocers who sold produce, the Times notes.
Some tallied food outlets per 1,000 residents, which made densely populated urban areas appear to have fewer places per person to buy food. A more meaningful measure … is the distance to the nearest stores.
It’s not hard to see why anti-obesity crusaders have targeted the so-called food deserts. While the vagaries of human bodies and metabolism or the sins of food mega-producers are complex and hard to address, fixing the food desert problem seems comparatively simple: Get more fresh/healthy food into the area. Folks disagree on the best ways to do this—tax credits? school programs? farm markets?—but the final goal is relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, it may also be way off base.