Policymakers are scrambling to find a solution to our growing waistlines. Some are targeting America’s “food deserts” — areas lacking in grocery stores.
As first lady Michelle Obama explained in March, “Families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.”
In the war against obesity, irrigating the food desert has become a priority. From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, it’s become a focus of city initiatives, and the federal budget earmarks nearly $400 million to eliminate the problem.
There’s just one catch: The problem is badly overstated.
At first blush, the food-desert argument sounds compelling. Because of a market failure, grocers in rural areas and low-income inner cities simply won’t stock enough fresh food for healthy diets, forcing people to eat high-calorie foods.
But this argument makes it too easy to sidestep the role of personal responsibility and blame scapegoats for the nation’s rising obesity rate. Call it the McVictim Syndrome. Our obsession with food deserts, alas, is a symptom of it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a large number of residents are more than a mile from a grocery store.
By this definition, 13.5 million Americans are supposedly McVictimized by food deserts. That’s less than 4.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand that food deserts are, at worst, a very small aspect of a vast problem.
A few months ago, the USDA released a glitzy online map charting the location of every food desert in America. Urbanist blogger Angie Schmitt was baffled to find her home at the edge of a Cleveland food desert, even though she’s “never had better access to food in [her] life.”
The explanation: She lives near a successful, family-run grocery. But the USDA bureaucracy defines “access to fresh food” as access to a large supermarket with more than $2 million in annual sales.
Neighborhood bodegas? Family grocers? Produce markets? None of them count, whether they stock fresh food or not.
The issue is almost surely more complicated than food-desert experts claim. In a major new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, involving more than 5,000 people in low-income Birmingham, Minneapolis, Chicago and Oakland, and spanning 15 years, no connection was found between access to grocery stores and better diets.
Fortunately, there are some hopeful signs. In March, the Journal of Public Health published a paper reviewing the success of a British pilot program.
This “Pounds for Pounds” study used cash incentives to reward healthy weight reduction — a cheap strategy, since it’s really about sharing the savings that come from reduced health costs.
Over 44 percent of participants completed the program with “clinically significant weight loss.” American public and private insurers should be inspired to use similar strategies.
In Oklahoma City, participants in Mayor Mick Cornett’s voluntary campaign to “Put this City on a Diet” reported they’d shed 750,000 pounds as of the summer. Yet Oklahoma City is covered in food deserts, according to the USDA map.
And in Newark, N.J., vegetarian Mayor Cory Booker dropped nearly 40 pounds this year as part of his personal campaign to inspire residents to do the same. The presence of a giant food desert on Newark’s shoreline doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.
Dr. David Gratzer, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.