Walk into nearly any supermarket in the United States, and you are immediately confronted with abundance — bok choy, mangos, melons and avocados from across the globe — where a couple of varieties of apples and carrots once struggled to fill shelf space.
But not everyone has easy access to this fruity phantasmagoria. If you’re picking up ingredients for dinner at a gas station or a convenience store, you probably live in what eggheads have taken to calling a “food desert” — an ill-defined concept with powerful policy implications. A commonly cited 2009 statistic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has 23.5 million Americans living in poor urban and rural areas with limited access to fresh food.
Making those food deserts bloom is a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity agenda. This January found the first lady smiling for the cameras with Wal-Mart executives in Southeast Washington and declaring herself “more hopeful than ever” as she tours the nation’s produce sections.
But the prevalence of food deserts is almost certainly overstated. Not having a supermarket in your Zip code isn’t the last word in access to healthy food. According to the USDA, 93 percent of “desert” dwellers have access to a car. And farmers markets, often overlooked in surveys of rich and poor neighborhoods alike, have tripled since 1994.
Still, it does seem reasonable that making it easier to buy fresh food would improve what people eat. However, a study published this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the first to measure the impact of access to fresh food on diet, followed 5,000 people for over 15 years and found something surprising: Proximity to a grocery store or supermarket doesn’t increase consumption of healthy food. That suggests that a lack of convenient leafy greens isn’t the problem. Dinner menus are the product of subtle and pervasive food cultures, which can’t be tweaked from the East Wing.
The primary beneficiaries of tax incentives and other nudges aimed at abolishing food deserts are big grocery chains, not poor shoppers.
2. Advertising forces people to make unhealthy choices.
Television-bound children, their eyes awhirl with images of Tony the Tiger and his high-fructose friends, haunt the debate about junk-food advertising. And any parent who has ever experienced a 2-year-old’s grocery store meltdown would certainly like to have someone to blame. But the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has concluded that “current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to adiposity [excess weight] among children and youth.” Similar findings hold true for adults.