Pulling a Dog’s Tail to Make It Wag

Pulling a dog’s tail to make it wag seems like a direct way to go. But it doesn’t do the trick. Likewise, putting grocery stores into food deserts seems like a pretty good way to address the high rate of obesity in neighborhoods with poor access to fresh, whole food. So the idea of eradicating food deserts has become deeply embedded in policies to reduce obesity, like the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign.

The problem is that research on putting a grocery stores into food deserts isn’t finding any effect on obesity or dietary behaviors.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a discussion between three experts with differing views on what this means. Brian Lang, Director of the Food Trust’s National Campaign for Healthy Food Access, was the most optimistic of the group:

We don’t think any of these interventions on its own is a silver bullet, but taken together they’ve had an impact. And researchers in the field seem to be gravitating toward this idea, too — that for these things to improve health, they need to be done in coordination with one another.

Mari Gallagher, a policy consultant on food deserts, took a pragmatic tone:

The food environment matters in different ways in different places, so we have to be careful not to generalize or make assumptions. But it does matter. And it’s probably easier to improve the food environment than to instantly give each poor person a great job, a college education and a car so that they can travel out of their neighborhood to the healthy food store.

Helen Lee, a social policy researcher, was most blunt in her assessment:

Building more grocery stores is, at best, a bandage and, at worst, may actually increase consumption of unhealthy food because, let’s face it: Potato chips are way tastier than rice cakes.

Investing in evidence-based early preschool programs or initiatives that help low-income young adults attend and complete college or promising work-development strategies might do more for improving the health status of the most vulnerable than building farmers’ markets or grocery stores.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that efforts to improve access to health food in food deserts — by themselves — won’t do much to reverse obesity trends. They might help the quality of life in the neighborhood, though, so they will probably remain popular.

So maybe it is a bit better than pulling on a dog’s tail. At least you won’t be bitten.

Click here to read more from the Wall Street Journal and here to read more from the New York Times.

Wag, photograph © greg / flickr

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July 17, 2015