The Persistent Mythology of Food Deserts

The persistent mythology of food deserts seems immune to evidence that continues to contradict long-held assumptions. This month in Health Affairs we have yet another in a long line of studies that show simply opening new supermarkets in food deserts neither alters dietary habits nor has an impact on obesity.

The concept of food deserts is one that formed in the 1990s, based on an association of obesity prevalence with neighborhoods lacking easy access to grocery stores selling healthy foods. It took off in 2004 with the introduction of the Fresh Food Financing Initiative in Pennsylvania, providing grants to open markets selling fresh foods in food deserts. First Lady Michelle Obama became a big promoter of this idea when she announced the Healthy Food Financing Initiative in 2010. Communities are taking great pride in bringing farmers markets into their midst. What’s not to like?

But the problem is that the data on these appealing initiatives are accumulating and they fail to show the intended benefit on nutrition and obesity rates. The new study in Health Affairs is the latest example. More discouraging for those invested in fighting food deserts is data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2009 and 2012 they showed that for the most part, poorer neighborhoods had more grocery stores, not fewer.

Promoting access to fresh, healthy food might be a community development strategy that people want to continue pursuing. But we should stop pretending it will surely lead to lower obesity rates. The secret formula for doing that is not yet in the bag.

And by the way, has anyone else noticed that you can buy an impressive array of sugary, salty, and fatty foods at a farmers market?

Click here to read more in Slate and click here to read the new study in Health Affairs.

Downtown Farmers Market, photograph © Gemma Billings / flickr

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4 Responses to “The Persistent Mythology of Food Deserts”

  1. February 14, 2014 at 10:14 am, Amy Endrizal said:

    Great post. Proximity to healthy food isn’t enough, if you don’t have the time or know-how to prepare it. It also seems that despite good intentions, proponents of eliminating food deserts don’t take the realities of their intended customer base in mind. I am no MBA, but this seems to be a priority if efforts to improve food options is going to make any difference. A NYT article this week bolsters your insightful comments.

    • February 14, 2014 at 4:50 pm, Ted said:

      Good insight and a great link I’d missed. Thanks, Amy!

  2. February 15, 2014 at 9:52 pm, Sean Lucan said:

    Most of the literature on food deserts is woefully limited. Here is just a taste of some of the reasons why: Until there is better measurement, I don’t think we can conclude one way or the other.

    • February 16, 2014 at 5:17 am, Ted said:

      I agree. Food environment is far more complex than simplistic models of food deserts would suggest. And we creatures who inhabit the environment are critical variables.