No Evidence of Food Deserts: A Rebuttal

Posted on Apr 20, 2012
No Evidence of Food Deserts: A Rebuttal

As reported by the New York Times on Tuesday, two studies emerged this past week questioning the pairing of “food deserts” with the rate of obesity among urban populations. These findings have instigated much conversation among social analysts, both in support and refute of the study results.

The studies – one from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, the other from the RAND Corporation – suggest that access to healthy food has no bearing on citizen health. In fact, the studies indicate that people living in food deserts actually have more access to food than comparatively affluent neighborhoods:

Poor neighborhoods had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had 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 … living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make [middle] school students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat.

Coming so quickly after my recent post on food deserts and mobile technologies for digital outcasts, I feel compelled to offer a response. First thing to note is that both studies are authored by credible organizations, and I’m not looking to discredit their findings or research methods. The numbers are what the numbers are.

The second item to note is perhaps more diffused: physical access to stores is not the sole attribute by which we should define a food desert. There are additional contributing factors that earn this designation including nutritional literacy, logistical difficulties (such as work schedules or transportation options), quality of available stock, and regional tendencies that dictate buying habits.

In other words – simply having a source of food is near your home doesn’t automatically improve your access to or awareness of healthier diet choices. Nor does living some distance from a grocery store decrease a community’s health quotient. Anyone who makes these assumptions is conflating multiple socioeconomic trends into a single, flawed data point.

Consider the claim that “within a couple of miles you can get basically any type of food,” according to Rolan Sturm of the RAND Corporation. In cities where higher-quality supermarkets are more than a mile away, residents without cars must rely on public transportation. Climate conditions, unsafe streets, misaligned work shifts, and long walking distances compound the problem – which only worsens when having to carry bags of groceries back home.

Faced with limited transportation options, residents are more likely to make purchases at small, local stores. The quality of stores’ contents varies widely from shop to shop, block to block, zip code to zip code. In the bodegas of Harlem, for example, shelves are stocked with artificially sweetened soft drinks and beer. Sandwiches are lathered with full-fat cheese and mayonnaise, the counters bursting with candy bars and potato chip packets. What produce remains is of insufficient quality to even meet baseline nutritional benchmarks.*

And even if one is fortunate to have a supermarket nearby, there’s no guarantee that it will be any better than the corner bodega. Stocking decisions are primarily driven by revenue demographics, creating a vicious cycle where wealthy consumers control the market for higher quality produce. Less affluent shoppers suffer with fewer choices, because their wallets don’t resonate with the same level of impact among corporate decision-makers.

What results is a crisis of abundance, where free enterprise collides with human nature. The body’s physical demand is to fill it with calories; the brain knows that 50 calories from a mixed vegetable medley is better than a serving of French fries, but that’s not how hungry people make decisions. A 12-year-old is going to choose the McDonald’s across the street for her daily snack, even though she knows the corner grocer is ten blocks away. She does this every afternoon on her way home from school, simply because one option is within her sight and the other isn’t.

And yet – observed through the single metric of store location, rationale supporting the existence of food deserts seems flawed. Rejecting the concept, however, requires an assumption that people will logically travel longer distances to buy products of marginal value. Or that given the option of “easily acquired and unhealthy” vs. “difficult to obtain and healthy,” they’ll choose the latter every time.

From a universal design standpoint, that is just ridiculous. People want healthier choices, but they also want something they can prepare quickly and easily – especially at the end of a long workday when the baby is crying, the bills have to be paid, the kids won’t do their homework and an elderly parent needs her medicine.

Yes, Virginia, there are food deserts. They exist in the contextual vacuum that fails to recognize that access doesn’t equal availability. They exist in the decisions retailers make when they evaluate spending habits among demographic groups. They exist in the homes of families who (seriously) don’t know the difference between a beet and a potato. They exist in the minds of political pundits, those who would rather mock food deserts as some sort of fictional Sasquatch than address empirical truths behind the data.

This is where the real food deserts exist – not on the streets of Urban America, not in the dilapidated corner shops infested with roaches, but within every household that makes up a social constituency and the businesses that serve them. It’s not just whether or not you can get to a store. It’s about what’s inside that store and whether a visit is even worth the trip.

*An initiative is taking place to bring healthy food into Harlem bodegas. Greenmarket is a project of New York City’s Council on the Environment, gifting refrigerators to bodega owners to stock seasonal fruits, vegetables and pure juices.