Ezra Klein, a health policy blogger for the Washington Post, links to a new report from the Food and Drug Administration examining the problem of food deserts – places that lack access to full-service grocery stores and the fresh produce they sell. This isn’t really a food equity blog, but since I recently posted on the topic this seems like a relevant follow up.
Jane Black, another Wapo reporter, read the report and notes that “there’s no significant evidence that increased access to fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains actually reduces Body Mass Index (BMI).” Klein adds that “only 2.2 percent of Americans live a mile or more from a supermarket and don’t have access to a car.”
So what’s the problem with these so-called food deserts? Too much food.
The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores. As the USDA puts it, “Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.” The concentration of the obesity crisis in high-poverty areas thus brings us back to a pretty well-accepted hypothesis: The problem is with low-income areas where the cheap food is the bad food.
If its the abundance of junk foods rather than the scarcity of fresh foods that is the real culprit here, the policy implications are much different. Subsidizing grocery stores or “green carts” or farmer’s markets isn’t the solution. Getting people to buy the good stuff is, such as policies that provide bonus Food Stamps dollars for fresh produce.