Commentary Magazine


Studies Find No Evidence of “Food Deserts”

“Food deserts” is a term that’s become associated with Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, and the theory holds that children in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be overweight because their parents don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s led to initiatives like Walmart’s plan to open 300 grocery stores in low-income, urban areas.

But as the New York Times reports today, two new independent studies found no correlation between poor urban neighborhoods with high obesity rates and a lack of access to fresh produce:

It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

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,” he said.

The research found no correlation between obesity and lack of healthy food access for a blindingly obvious reason: just because healthy food is available, it doesn’t mean people will eat it (as anyone who evaded Brussels sprouts as a child knows).

As the Times acknowledges, these are really the first two meaningful studies done on the issue. Unlike prior research supporting the “food desert thesis,” the new ones weren’t limited by methodological gaps (i.e., one older study didn’t include data on the local obesity rates). Anti-food-desert activists quoted in the article appear to be caught flat-footed by the new data, basically just grumbling that more research has to be done.

But the most priceless part of the article is when the Times wonders how the “food desert” theory became widely accepted in first place, particularly when the research on it was so flimsy:

It is unclear how the idea took hold that poor urban neighborhoods were food deserts but it had immediate appeal. There is even an Agriculture Department “food desert locator” and a “National Food Desert Awareness Month” supported by the National Center for Public Research, a charitable foundation.

For a refresher, here’s a passionate 2009 New York Times editorial petitioning Michelle Obama to take up arms against the food desert epidemic:

Michelle Obama’s recent pitch for fresh vegetables and her avowed interest in community gardens have given new life to those who are trying to replace cheap, fast foods with healthier fare. She could go one step further and greatly improve the health of the urban poor by adding her powerful voice to local efforts aimed at bringing fresh groceries into poorer neighborhoods.

There are communities across America where it’s almost impossible to find a fresh apple or an unfried potato. These neighborhoods are known as ”food deserts.” Full-service grocery stores are often many blocks away and hard to reach, and what’s left are mostly fast-food outlets or chain drug stores selling products that, while cheap today, can extract huge health costs in obesity and diabetes later on.

That must have been a pretty persuasive editorial, because the First Lady added the issue to her anti-obesity campaign shortly afterward.