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.

A reader scrutinizes a piece this week from Joe Cortright:

In food desert theory, there’s a definite assumed causal directionality: Poor urban populations would buy good, nutritious food if only it were made available to them. Since eating fast food, processed foods, and junk foods are cardinals sins to those on the left, it was necessary to create this directionality lest the underdog be to blame for their own shortcomings.

Of course, this meant adopting the illogical assumption that large businesses were ignoring profitable markets and giving up potential millions in sales simply to be mean, but that fundamental misunderstanding of how businesses work was easy considering that the alternative meant a reassessment of an entire philosophy. The poor simply could not be at fault, so it must be that businesses were working against their own self-interest in order to be counter-productively evil.

Cortright does a useful bit of reporting in acknowledging that “food desert” theories to explain the disproportionately low amounts of healthy foods consumed by the poor—especially the urban poor—in America. Considering that, it’s odd that he turns around and mimics the exact error of assuming directional causation, for the exact same reasons.

He looks and sees evidence that rich people eat as is philosophically acceptable to those that worry about such things, while the poor do not. He then essentially says “We must give the poor more money somehow; since rich people take the time to eat better, it must be that making a poor person well-to-do will cause them to behave as a rich person does.”

In the same way as food desert theorist, Cortright completely ignores an alternative explanation to the problem: It’s possible and even probable that the wealthier eating better reflects the types of habits and familial training that allowed them to make a comfortable living in the first place. It could be that the same kind of man who pursues vocational training that takes him from $20K-per-year poverty to nearly thriving at $50K/year is the same kind of man who at some point also decides to improve his body in the same way he improved his mind. But this thought is not only rejected; it’s not considered at all.

It’s entirely possible that this “wealthier people live better because wealthier people try to live better” line of reasoning is completely wrong, but it could be right. If the latter is true, handing the poor better jobs will do nothing to effect the desired solution of forcing them to stop eating Doritos. To find the correct solution, we must consider every plausible cause, no matter how philosophically uncomfortable it makes us.

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