Lest you think I’m bringing you the fruit of a poisoned libertarian think tank tree or some such, let me note up front that this study is a collaboration of the Rand Corp. and the Los Angeles County health department— neither famously right-wing organizations interested in leaving Americans alone in their food choices. But the results of the study shed serious doubt on a theory that has driven a thousand hot takes by hand-wringing liberals about the food environment in low-income communities and plenty of nanny-state meddling with those environments.
Conventional wisdom suggests that if you live in an area devoid of fresh, healthy food, you won’t eat well. These so-called food deserts, the logic goes, are a root cause of the obesity epidemic.
Let me pause to note that the lede on this story is an example of the kind of lazy journalism that brought us to a place where a trendy, liberal term like “food desert” with little to no data to support its theory and the public policies it engenders became “conventional wisdom.” It’s conventional wisdom because far too many journalists listen to liberal academics and activists, throw the nanny-state term of the moment into their stories, don’t bother with figuring out whether they mean anything, and call it a job well done. Cheers to this reporter for writing about some of the refuting evidence, but I’m continually amazed that the press reports on such things without noting its own role in perpetuating fill-in-the-blank nutritional theory:
But new research indicates that the picture is much more complicated, with food choices being affected by several factors, including the cost of food, cultural preferences and marketing. Eliminating food deserts, researchers say, may only marginally improve people’s health.
“I wouldn’t put it at the top of my policy agenda,” said Roland Sturm, a senior economist at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp.
He and his colleagues published a study this month in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease that found virtually no link between the type of food and drinks that Los Angeles County adults consume and the proximity of fast-food outlets, grocery stores and convenience stores to their homes. In the last few years, he has published other papers evaluating the connection between the food environment — the distribution and number of food shops — and people’s eating habits and, for the most part, found little connection.
The First Lady has railed against “food deserts” in her quest to make us all healthier despite long-standing questions about the data backing up such concerns:
The study looked at over 1,000 Philadelphia residents who formerly lived in areas considered food deserts but have since seen grocery stores built within 1.5 miles of their residences. Six months after supermarkets were built, the researchers found only 26.7 percent of those who lived near one of the newly built grocery stores ended up using the grocery store as their main food source. Within that 26.7 percent there was no significant improvement in body-mass index or intake of fruits and vegetables.
The findings led the authors of the study to write that “this indicates that simply providing new food retail stores is insufficient to encourage the adoption of new stores as residents’ main food source.” Residents who didn’t adopt the new stores, it is assumed, continued to use the old, less-healthy alternative.
According to Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, six months may not be enough time to measure the effects of introducing new supermarkets to neighborhoods. But she notes that previous studies showed no evidence that expanding access to healthy food reduces obesity rates.
It’s perfectly rational and obvious that people’s eating habits are built on generations of cultural attitudes combined with income considerations and yes, some availability. But discussing all of those factors doesn’t lend itself to a simple, elegant statist solution like limiting fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods via zoning or strong-arming grocery stores into certain areas and out of others with the same tactics.
In 2008, Los Angeles lawmakers banned new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles as part of a campaign to improve residents’ health. The law aimed to stem high rates of obesity and diabetes that afflict African American areas.
Sturm published a study earlier this year that found that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in Los Angeles, but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance, including Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.
“There is just nothing easy. That’s the problem,” he said.
Just stop, guys.