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Fighting Food Deserts: Disappointing Results

Fighting food deserts is a core agenda item in the campaign to reverse the obesity epidemic. We’re five years into a seven-year program “to eliminate food deserts in America completely in seven years.” The Healthy Foods Financing Initiative has been providing funds for selling healthy food in food deserts since 2010. It builds on a Pennsylvania idea, the Fresh Foods Financing Initiative, that goes back to 2004.

The trouble is that all this effort doesn’t seem to be moving the needle in terms of dietary habits, let alone obesity.

Another study has just been published — this time in Public Health Nutrition — that finds:

The introduction of a government-subsidized supermarket into an underserved neighbourhood in the Bronx did not result in significant changes in household food availability or children’s dietary intake.

Brian Elbel, lead author on this study, commented:

Low-income and ethnic minority neighborhoods are underserved by supermarkets relative to their higher-income counterparts, and it would appear to be logical that increasing availability of healthful foods could improve diets. However, we do not yet know whether or under what circumstances these stores will improve diet and health.

Last year in Health Affairs, a similar finding was published. Steven Cummins and colleagues found that “simply improving a community’s retail food infrastructure may not produce desired changes in food purchasing and consumption patterns.”

Why are the data not cooperating?

It’s worth considering a flaw in one of the core assumptions behind these policies. Yes, food deserts are associated with obesity. But maybe the relationship is not cause and effect. Maybe obesity causes food deserts. Or maybe it’s other — perhaps economic — factors that cause both food deserts and obesity.

And maybe it’s be time to re-assess what to expect from our efforts to eliminate food deserts.

Click here for more from Medical Daily, here for the study in Public Health Nutrition, and here for the Cummins study.

Corner Store, photograph © crfsproject / flickr

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