Are Food Deserts to Blame for America's Poor Eating Habits? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another reader keeps the debate going:

I read the original article on food deserts and some of the comments, and also this reader email. I work as an advocate for low-income folks in a small urban area in a rural state and have done so for 20 years. 

This is a very complex issue. Crappy food is generally cheaper and easier to prepare. Ramen noodles can fill your family’s belly at little cost and quickly—no small feat if you are a single mother dealing with young kids and a lot of pressure.

Sure it might make more sense to buy chicken on sale, cook it, and freeze meals ahead, so on and so forth. But as is common with my folks, let’s say you live in an apartment where the freezer doesn’t freeze, the oven doesn’t work, and you only have two burners on the stove. Most of these folks cook with a microwave bought at Walmart on the cheap. Also, with the exception of maybe cabbage and carrots, fresh fruit and vegetables are really expensive. So is fish these days, and beef is out of this world.

To blame poor people for pathological choices is easy if you have never really met a poor person or actually talked to them and got an idea of what challenges they face. To say if we only put organic stores full of fresh fruit in every neighborhood is also not a solution if people can’t afford those choices.

But this reader highlights a piece that runs counter to that last point:

You reminded me of this Atlantic article from Olga Khazan from last year. The company prepared salads in as visually pleasing a manner as possible and was willing to lose money just to keep the option available. But just because people had immediate access to healthier options, it wasn’t enough to justify the change in diet for potential customers. They still weren’t willing to buy the salads, even when available at or below cost.

More of your emails to come. Update from a reader:

I don’t think we were reading the same article. The community center machine was very popular by all accounts, even that of the one woman who refused to try it. They even expressed a willingness to pay a little ​more, if not full price (read: Whole Foods price).

Olga’s article is long, but the most relevant part to this discussion seems to be the following:

Speaking in Chicago in 2011, Michelle Obama described the “food deserts” that many low-income neighborhoods have become: “If people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch,” she said, “they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.”

But the following year, two different studies suggested that a lack of access to healthy food isn’t the true problem.

One, out of the Public Policy Institute of California, found that poor neighborhoods have three times as many corner stores as rich neighborhoods and twice as many supermarkets per square mile. Those findings are consistent with a study in Health Affairs, published earlier this year, which found that, when a new grocery store opened in a “food desert” in Philadelphia, locals’ body-mass indices and fruit and vegetable intake didn’t change.

In the other 2012 study, Roland Sturm, an economist with the RAND Corporation, analyzed the heights, weights, addresses, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and found no relationship between what they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food available within a mile and a half of their homes. More recently Sturm authored a paper, which I wrote about for The Atlantic, finding that while people of all incomes now eat about 30 pounds more vegetables and fruit annually than they did in 1970, obesity is worsening because they're eating more of everything else, too. The average adult consumed about 2,100 calories in 1970, but recently that number has risen to more than 2,500.

“Obesity is not about more food, it's about less food,” Sturm told me. “Improving diet quality is separate from obesity, and it's its own goal. But adding more fruit and vegetables won't make people thinner.”

He points out that there are other issues with the way food is bought and sold in the U.S. Neighborhood bodegas mostly sell unhealthy junk food because vegetables are expensive and spoil quickly, while sodas and chips are cheap and keep forever. In most of Europe, by contrast, tiny green grocers have staked out corners all around most towns and supply fresh produce to the populace. In the U.S., Sturm argues, that would never work. In 2013, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods had less variety and fewer healthful food options than those in rich areas.

Meanwhile, a 2013 analysis by the USDA, using Gallup data, found that it’s a lack of money, not a lack of access to grocery stores, that’s primarily driving obesity. Earlier this year, the Farm Bill cut food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over the next 10 years, shaving about $90 a month off of the incomes of 850,000 households. What’s more, people of all income levels suffer from obesity.