Fred Wilkinson, Managing EditorThere’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about “food deserts” — neighborhoods (often urban and invariably low income) where healthful foods are difficult to purchase.
The food desert’s bleak landscape is painted in the public perception as a nutritional wasteland where fast-food chains reign and the produce aisle — if you can find one — is little more than bruised bananas and a few sacks of spuds.
With the Obama administration’s heightened focus on the link between American’s often unhealthful diets and related public health issues such as diabetes and heart disease, food deserts have received even more scrutiny.
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.
Sturm also questions the contention that proximity to supermarkets necessarily improves diets — or sales of fresh produce, saying that if having a supermarket within a mile of your house makes you eat fresh fruits and vegetables, “By the same logic, supermarkets also make you drink soda.”
He does rightly agree that supermarkets provide more food variety and more options for eating healthily but cautions against seeing more supermarkets as a way to address the obesity epidemic.
Changing priorities in federal food policy has put the fresh produce industry in an enviable position compared to marketers of meat and many processed foods.
Having Americans be urged to make your product half their meal as official government policy is where you want to be.
But government recommendations can only go so far in actually making the changes they urge become reality.
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