Wishful Thinking About Food Deserts

When does a food desert become a money pit? One answer might be: when well-intended people persistently spend money on fixing food deserts without stopping to figure out what really works. A new study and news about ongoing efforts to give people better access to nutritious foods begs us to stop and think.

In the study, just published in Diabetes Care, Jessica Jones-Smith and colleagues examined how diverse people with diabetes might respond differently to the availability of healthy food. They found a very different relationship between the availability of healthy food and the risk of obesity for people with high incomes and people with low incomes. In the highest income group, a healthy food environment was associated with lower obesity. But in the lowest income group, a healthy food environment was actually associated with a higher risk of obesity.

What are we to make of this observation? The short answer is, we don’t know enough yet. First, it’s worth noting that this is not a study of cause and effect. But other experiments have been done (we’ve written about it here) to show that simply fixing food deserts will not reverse obesity problems in those communities. The authors of this new study point out “that the availability of healthful food environments may have different health implications when financial resources are severely constrained.”

It might just be that food deserts are a symptom, not the cause, of the problem we need to solve.

And yet, efforts to eliminate food deserts continue unabated. One example is the recent announcement of $4 million in funding from USDA to allow people to use SNAP food assistance at farmers’ markets. None of this suggests that such efforts are a bad thing. But promising they will reduce obesity will doom us to failure.

A more cynical view was just published online by Progress in Human Geography. Jerry Shannon from the University of Minnesota says “that work on food deserts is a spatialized form of neoliberal paternalism that bounds health problems within low-income communities. Alternative analyses of the urban food landscape, based on work in political ecology and critical GIS, may suggest more equitable paths forward.”

Clearly, we need to stop and think and test the best ways to address obesity in food deserts.

Click here to read the study by Jones-Smith, click here for a discussion of USDA funding for SNAP access at farmers’ markets, click here to read more in the Washington Post, and click here to read the analysis by Jerry Shannon.

Chamaeleo Namaquensis image © Yathin S Krishnappa / Wikimedia

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