Food deserts shrink, but love handles stay - The Packer

Food deserts shrink, but love handles stay

03/16/2012 08:31:00 AM
Fred Wilkinson

Federal health officials estimate the annual cost of treating obesity-related maladies weighs in at $150 billion.

Casting herself in the role of the nation’s concerned mom, first lady Michelle Obama has taken the lead in getting us all to eat our vegetables (fruits too), and her $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative launched in 2010 includes eliminating food deserts nationwide by 2017 among its goals. 

Apparently a big victory in the campaign against food deserts was under-reported in 2011.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Desert Locator website, the number of U.S. residents living in food deserts plummeted from 23.5 million in 2009 to 13.5 million when the site launched May.

In case all you produce suppliers and retailers are wondering why you didn’t notice a dramatic increase in your sales volumes in the past couple of years, it’s because the decline is a function of USDA metrics.

According to the USDA, a food desert is any census area where at least 20% of residents are below the poverty line and 33% live more than a mile from a supermarket. 

By simply extending the cut-off in rural areas to 10 miles instead of 1, the USDA rescued 10 million people from their food desert existence.

In the USDA’s defense, the new 10-mile rule for rural areas (where most everything tends to be more of a drive) is a more realistic measure.

But the change illustrates how sometimes arbitrary bureaucratic decisions can skew food policy debates in a way that may not be completely accurate. 

Along those same lines, maybe food deserts’ link to obesity and poor health isn’t the open and shut case we’ve been told.

A recent RAND Corp. study suggests the truth may be a little less clear.

In the study, RAND Corp. economist Roland Sturm looked at the food environments of 13,000 California adolescents, accounting for how many fast-food restaurants and supermarkets were within 1.5 miles of their homes and schools.

The study looked at the teenagers’ consumption of fast food, fresh fruits and other foods — and found no correlation between what food sources they lived near, what they ate or how much they weighed, according to a Washington Post report.

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Doug Stoiber    
Raleigh, NC  |  March, 27, 2012 at 07:18 AM

Excellent piece, Fred. It's easy to get on the wrong side of an argument when one question's the government's involvement in trying to influence free markets - believe me, I have taken some arrows on the controversial subject of the 'food deserts'. Good intentions often trump good, sound research in areas like nutrition, and while valuable background information like yours is slow to make its way into the public discussion, bureaucrats have already rushed to pump tax dollars into a solution to a problem that may not exist - at least not at the levels claimed by the advocates for more government spending. Thanks for going to another level on this story.

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