The topic of so-called “food deserts” came up in comments on a recent post. A reader included a link to a Eureka Alert article that included these quotes:
An analysis of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults reveals that access to healthy foods in a supermarket does not hinder Americans’ consumption of empty calories. In fact, the study found, U.S. adults buy the bulk of their sugar-sweetened beverages and nutrient-poor discretionary foods at supermarkets and grocery stores.
The new findings challenge the “food desert” hypothesis, which posits that a lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores in some communities worsens the obesity crisis by restricting people’s access to healthy foods.
As part of their never-ending quest to create a better society by spending other people’s money and/or restricting other people’s freedoms, The Anointed decided to take on the (ahem) “problem” of food deserts some years ago. And boy, the Grand Plan they came up with to fix it is such a fine example of The Anointed in action, I decided to write a full post on the topic.
I haven’t discussed The Anointed for a while, so I’ll start with a brief review of how they operate. This is my crib-sheet version of Thomas Sowell’s terrific book The Vision of The Anointed:
- The Anointed identify a problem in society.
- The Anointed propose a Grand Plan to fix the problem. Strangely, the Grand Plan nearly always requires spending other people’s money and/or restricting other people’s freedom to make their own decisions.
- Because they are so supremely confident in their ideas, The Anointed don’t bother with proof or evidence that the Grand Plan will actually work. In fact, they cheerfully ignore any evidence that the Grand Plan won’t work.
- If possible, The Anointed will use government coercion to impose the Grand Plan on other people (for their own good, of course).
- Because the problem they’ve identified is The Bad, The Anointed assume whatever Grand Plan they design to fix it is The Good. Therefore, anyone who opposes the Grand Plan is opposing Good itself … which can only mean those people are either evil or stupid.
- If the Grand Plan fails (which it usually does), The Anointed will never, ever, ever admit the Grand Plan was wrong. They will instead conclude that 1) the plan was good, but was undermined by people who are evil or stupid, or 2) the plan didn’t go far enough … which means we need to do the same thing again, ONLY BIGGER.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some examples of The Anointed identifying the “food desert” problem in America.
We’ll start with a USDA Today article titled Millions of Food Desert Dwellers Struggle to Get Fresh Groceries. Heck, you don’t even need to read the article after seeing that title. It tells you everything you need to know. Millions of people are struggling to get fresh groceries. Clearly they want those fresh fruits and vegetables, but find the task nearly impossible. Here are some quotes:
There’s been little improvement in the country’s food accessibility in recent years, and that’s bad news for millions of Americans.
“Efforts to encourage Americans to improve their diets and to eat more nutritious foods presume that a wide variety of these foods are accessible to everyone. But, for some Americans and in some communities, access to healthy foods may be limited,” said a 2012 USDA report, which found that nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population lived in a low-income area more than a mile from a supermarket.
Other research suggests healthier food options are typically limited in low-income regions, as a team of Yale University professors concluded after a regional supermarket analysis that “lower-income neighborhoods (compared to those in higher-income neighborhoods) stock fewer healthier varieties of foods and have fresh produce of much lower quality.”
So there you have it. We’re encouraging Americans to improve their diets, but nutritious food just isn’t available in many areas, especially poor areas. Isn’t that odd? Nobody talks about “athletic shoe deserts” or “flat-screen TV deserts” or “chicken-nugget deserts” in any of America’s big cities. But for some reason, the same class of greedy capitalists who profit from those products apparently don’t want to swoop in and make a buck selling nutritious fruits and vegetables.
The USDA Today article was written by someone with the title of Economy Reporter. That ought to scare you. A little knowledge of basic economics should be a requirement for the job.
We can be a bit more forgiving of a group called DoSomething.org, since it describes itself as “young people + social change.” When I hear that young people are motivated by “social change,” I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) they don’t know diddly about economics — which is why they’re often in love with Grand Plans that promise to DoSomething! Anyway, here are portions of their deep analysis of the problem:
“Food deserts” are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (aka fresh fruits and veggies) is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away.
Residents living in food deserts also have a hard time finding foods that are culturally relevant and that meet their dietary restrictions.
People living in the poorest SES (social-economic status) areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas.
With limited options, many people living in food deserts get meals from fast-food restaurants.
Food insecurity has a high correlation with increased diabetes rates.
Ain’t it awful? Once again, for reasons nobody can explain, greedy capitalists apparently aren’t interested in turning a profit by selling nutritious (or even culturally relevant) foods to people who are struggling to find them. So with those limited options, people living in food deserts turn to fast food (despite its lack of cultural relevance) and then develop diabetes. Man, somebody needs to jump in and DoSomething!
It’s not just young people interested in social change who believe this nonsense. Here’s part of a comment on a PBS article about food deserts (which we’ll revisit shortly):
I remember sitting in a seminar while attending Hopkins school of public health many years ago when this issue was gaining momentum and the speaker (a community advocate) believed there was some sort of conspiracy or concerted effort to keep healthy foods out of low-income, urban neighborhoods. He believed that corner store owners could make more money selling fruits and vegetables than junk food but just simply didn’t do it.
Yup, a community activist actually believes there’s a conspiracy NOT to sell fruits and vegetables in urban neighborhoods, even though the store owners would make more money. Hey, maybe someday we’ll elect a former community activist as our president. Then we’ll really see some brilliant economic programs. Perhaps one that jacks insurance premiums through the roof while simultaneously chasing the major insurers and providers out of the market. In the meantime, I’d love to have a secret conversation with one of those store owners conspiring to keep fruits and vegetables out of urban neighborhoods.
“Listen, you know you’d actually make more money selling healthy food to these people, right?”
“Yeah, but I still don’t want to do it.”
“I figure if my customers keep dying of diabetes, that’s good for business in the long run.”
With the problem identified, The Anointed of course proposed a Grand Plan. Here’s what the PBS article had to say about it:
To change the situation in these areas — known as “food deserts” — Mrs. Obama called for action. “This is happening all across the country. We’re setting people up for failure if we don’t fix this.”
Notice the attitude: it’s a problem and the government must fix it – by spending other people’s money, of course. As usual, The Anointed didn’t bother looking for evidence that the plan would work. They didn’t start by spending, say, $100,000 to open fruit and vegetable stands in a few “food deserts” to determine whether or not the desert-dwellers would actually buy them. Nope, the plan must always be Grand. The article on Eureka Alert explains just how Grand this one was:
The food desert hypothesis led the U.S. government to spend almost $500 million since 2011 to improve access to supermarkets and grocery stores in underserved communities. States and municipalities also have made efforts to increase the supply of healthy foods, offering financial incentives to build new grocery stores or to increase the amount of fresh food available in convenience stores and gas stations, for example.
And from the PBS article:
Pennsylvania has launched a program whereby 88 new or expanded food retail outlets have been created, giving healthy food access to around 500,000 children and adults. And in fact, when the House passed the long-awaited farm bill on Wednesday, it included a provision for the HealthyFood Financing Initiative, which would allocate $125 million for expanding food resources in underserved communities across the nation.
That’s more than a half-billion of your dollars. So how’s it working? I’m sure you can guess, but let’s look at some quotes from the PBS article:
Fast forward to 2014, though, and the problem of food deserts — and their effect on diet and health — still persists.
Really? After a half-billion spent by the feds and millions more spent by states? How can that be?
The problem may not lie solely with food accessibility; it could also be due to people’s shopping and eating habits.
Gee, do ya think?
Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggests that merely adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood won’t be enough to motivate individuals to shop there for healthier foods.
In other words, the Grand Plan isn’t working for the same reason those wunnerful, wunnerful fruits and vegetables weren’t available in “food deserts” in the first place: THE LOCALS AREN’T INTERESTED IN BUYING THEM. HOW DID YOU NOT SEE THIS COMING A HALF-BILLION DOLLARS AGO, YOU @#$%ING MORONS?!
Here’s the really fun part: The USDA is aware of research negating the hypothesis that people don’t buy fruits and vegetables because they “struggle” to find them. Look at these quotes from a USDA document, which explains (among other things) that most people living in “food deserts” actually travel to a superstore to buy groceries:
If poor food access affects consumers’ food choices, then the dietary quality of consumers with limited food shopping options should improve when they shop farther from home, where their choices are less constrained. Nielsen data confirm that the dietary quality of their purchases did improve, but just slightly. By driving an extra mile to the store, low-access consumers purchased 0.42 percent more fruits, 0.55 percent more vegetables, 0.61 percent more low-fat milk products, and 0.33 percent less nondiet drinks.
They travel to big stores, but buy perhaps one-half of one percent more fruits and vegetables than people who don’t travel to big stores. So much for the struggle.
But what about people living in a neighborhood where a new (government-subsidized) store was built to make sure resident have easy access to fruits and vegetables? Here’s what the USDA document says:
In Pittsburgh, the share of residents in the new-store neighborhood who were regular users of the new store was much higher—68 percent—but their diet quality was not different from their neighbors who were not regular users of the new store.
These results suggest that improving access to healthful foods by itself will likely not have a major impact on consumer diets or generate major reductions in diet-related disease.
No change in diet. Big fat fail. Another Grand Plan bites the dust.
Well, not really. Grand Plans never bite the dust. When a Grand Plan fails, The Anointed always conclude that it was undermined by people who are stupid or evil, or it didn’t go far enough. Here’s what one economics genius commenting on the PBS article has to say:
Healthy food must become affordable and that means unhealthy food must become more expensive. A RISK tax’s – akin to the excise tax on tobacco – time has come.
Incentives to purchase vegetables and low glycemic fruit must be made part of the SNAP program and sugar (including refined grains) must be restricted or denied.
In-store marketing could be cooking demonstrations by folks savvy in nutrition using healthy food – limited ingredients, mostly plants – show them and they will buy SANE – Sustainable, Affordable, Nutritious food for Everyone.
Right. The answer, of course, is to spend even more of other people’s money and restrict more of other’s people’s freedoms. Restrict and deny choices, raise taxes, and spend more money to demonstrate how to cook healthy food. Because by gosh, THEN the urban “food desert” dwellers will finally decide they want more fruits and vegetables.
What is so hard to try these approaches?
I dunno, but I bet someone who’s either evil or stupid is undermining them.
Ah! sorry, I know. It is that corporations such as Coca-Cola have infiltrated the first lady’s program to promote “let’s move” and forget the nutrition part of the obesity epidemic.
Well, that explains it. The feds spent a half-billion dollars to make fruits and vegetables more accessible, but people aren’t buying them because the evil corporation Coca-Cola infiltrated Ms. Obama’s awesome Grand Plan.
Professor Cummins, who conducted the study covered in the PBS article, has this to say:
I want to stress that supermarket interventions — even though I don’t think they’re necessarily effective in the way people think they’ll be effective — are very important, and I am actually quite supportive of them.
Excuse me? Your own study says supermarket interventions don’t change eating habits, but you still think they’re important and support them?!
In addition to improving physical access to food in disadvantaged neighborhoods, you also need to think about policies that help bridge this gap between perception and action. These might include things such as economic initiatives — like taxes or subsidies for healthy foods — but could also include harnessing in-store marketing to promote the purchase of healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy foods.
I see. We need even more government action. The Grand Plan obviously didn’t go far enough.
Here’s a thought to consider, Professor: when people in some neighborhoods don’t buy fruits and vegetables even when the feds spend millions of dollars to bring them in, it’s not because they’re disadvantaged. It’s because they buy what they prefer to eat.
So how about you just leave them (and the rest of us) alone?
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