Akst: Michelle Obama wrong on food deserts
The food desert, it seems, is just a mirage.
What's a food desert? It's supposedly where many low-income Americans live, a grim neighborhood where the only comestibles you can buy are fattening and unhealthy.
The story has been that poor Americans are fatter than others in part because they are stranded in such deserts, forced to trek through trackless wastes of Big Macs and the like to find a single Brussels sprout.
Michelle Obama, who's spent quite a bit of energy trying to make the food desert bloom with fruits and vegetables, talked about the problem of access to healthy food last fall. "This is not just happening here in Chicago on the South Side," she said during a visit. "In so many neighborhoods, if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid's lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it."
But now we have some strong research suggesting that, in America at least, there are no food deserts. The sociologist Helen Lee reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine that children in poor, minority neighborhoods have ample access to fast food and convenience stores, but also to supermarkets -- suggesting that low-income Americans have plenty of places to buy carrots and broccoli. Lee found that distance to food outlets didn't explain weight gain.
And the health economist Roland Sturm at the RAND Corp., a think tank, studied children in California and found no connection between the type of food they were eating and what food was available within a mile and a half. He looked at national data for middle-schoolers and found the same thing.
In other words, a considerable chunk of the political and public health establishment has been barking up the wrong tree. Or crying about the wrong wilderness.
The chimerical nature of food deserts -- which were first "discovered" in Britain -- has been demonstrated before, as I've noted in a previous column. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that just 2.2 percent of households live more than a mile from a supermarket and also lack access to a vehicle. The year before, a USDA study found that raising the incomes of poor families by 10 percent didn't increase their purchases of fruits and vegetables, suggesting that affordability wasn't any more a problem than access.
Yet the food desert mirage persisted, shimmering brightly on the media landscape. Why? One reason is a strong tendency on the part of liberals to believe that people -- especially poor people -- are victims of circumstances.
To some extent, of course, all of us are. Sooner or later everyone suffers some bad luck in life, and none of us can control our genetic makeup. Fully two-thirds of Americans are overweight, half of them obese. Clearly some powerful circumstances are at work -- throughout society -- to produce such a change in a mere 30 years.
Today all of us live in an environment that makes it hard to maintain a healthy weight. Changes in business, technology and culture, from the rise of fast food and all-day snacking to the decline of family meals, have played a role. Humans are weak in the face of such forces.
Yet people are far from powerless, and the notion that we are helpless to control our actions is counterproductive and dehumanizing. The challenge is finding ways for people to help themselves without getting distracted by mirages.
There's no denying that poor and minority Americans suffer more weight problems. But deceiving ourselves about the reasons -- which are still unknown -- won't help anyone. The food desert, it now seems clear, was a notion built on sand.Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.