Eat Money

Invested in Fighting Food Deserts Instead of Obesity?

Ideological investment in the concept of fighting food deserts remains resilient in the face of a continuing stream of data that suggests it will do nothing to reverse obesity trends.

The latest blow comes from a study by researchers at the Rand Corporation and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. They analyzed the 2011 Los Angeles County Health Survey data and found little evidence of any relationship between the distance from someone’s home to different kinds of food outlets and BMI or dietary habits. The authors noted the gap between popular perceptions the evidence to date:

The concept of neighborhood food environments has been the focus of the news media and policy makers, yet the evidence is not clear on whether promoting or discouraging a particular type of food outlet is an effective approach to promoting healthful dietary behaviors and a healthy weight. 

Senior author Roland Sturm summed up his take on the evidence by saying:

I wouldn’t put it [food deserts] at the top of my policy agenda.

And yet, in the face of studies that keep finding no effect on obesity from programs to eliminate food deserts, public health officials continue to promote the idea. Responding to news of this latest study, Dr. Paul Simon of the LA County Department of Health said, “It would be a mistake to conclude that the food environment is not important.”

Clare Fox of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council responded by pointing to long-standing disparities in food access. She stressed the importance of “empowering stores that are residing in low-income communities to market and brand healthy food in new ways so that we can interrupt these systemic and historic inequities.”

Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy says that a more sophisticated analysis is required “to be able to show that what we intuitively know to be true is true.”

This deep commitment to fighting food deserts is impressive. It’s especially impressive that people keep pushing the idea, even when the data are not cooperating. It provides a striking example of how commitment to a cause can easily be as blinding as financial interests.

Click here to read the study and here to read more from the LA Times.

Eat Money, photograph © Lynne Hand / flickr

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September 9, 2015

4 Responses to “Invested in Fighting Food Deserts Instead of Obesity?”

  1. September 09, 2015 at 6:52 am, Heather said:

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate the critical lens through which you present the science and where science and policy meet. I completely appreciate that tackling food deserts doesn’t put a dent in obesity (which is also not terribly surprising given the decades of literature we have to indicate that people will add healthy foods into their diet but they don’t reliably swap out unhealthy foods for healthy ones). However, I am curious about whether tackling food deserts DOES support improvements in dietary intake (e.g., more fruits, veggies, whole grains). It seems this would be a worthwhile policy effort even if it doesn’t contribute to population changes in obesity.

    • September 09, 2015 at 7:54 am, Ted said:

      Heather, you’re asking all the right questions. I’m not aware of any reliable data to support a claim that eliminating a food desert, by itself, will produce a meaningful improvement in diet or reduction in obesity. It’s entirely possible that it could be helpful in combination with other interventions, but again, we have no real evidence, just suppositions. Apart from the health effects of addressing food deserts, other benefits are possible and perhaps even quite valuable. At the top of the list would be the benefits of economic development. But then that becomes a complex issue if you want to scrupulously account for the effects of gentrification. As Sturm says, “There is just nothing easy. That’s the problem.”

  2. September 09, 2015 at 9:59 am, Morgan Downey said:

    Good Job, Ted. In answer to Heather’s question, I think you would expect to see the same purchasing habits in stores filling in the food deserts as you have in the local region. I believe New York City did not see much improvement when it tried to bring in farmers’ markets to food deserts because there was little education of how to prepare vegetables in particular. In any event, fighting obesity by providing more opportunities to purchase food never made much sense to me.

    • September 09, 2015 at 10:22 am, Ted said:

      Well said, Morgan. Thanks!