NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Food Deserts

July 19, 2011

A new website from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that 10 percent of the country is now a "food desert," highlighting thousands of areas where, the USDA says, low-income families have little or no access to healthy fresh food.  First identified in Scotland in the 1990s, food deserts have come to epitomize urban decay.  They suggest images of endless fast food restaurants and convenience stores serving fatty, sugary junk food to overweight customers who have never tasted a Brussels sprout, says The Economist.

  • Official figures for the number of people living in food deserts already show a decline, from 23.5 million in 2009 to 13.5 million at the launch of the website in May.
  • Although this might on the face of it suggest that the initiative is off to a superb start, sadly it does not in fact represent a single additional banana bought or soda shunned.
  • This is because in America, the definition of a food desert is any census area where at least 20 percent of inhabitants are below the poverty line and 33 percent live more than a mile from a supermarket.
  • By simply extending the cut-off in rural areas to 10 miles, the USDA managed to rescue 10 million people from desert life.

Some academics would go further, calling the appearance of many food deserts nothing but a mirage -- and not the real problem.

  • Research by the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington found that only 15 percent of people shopped for food within their own census area.
  • Critics also note that focusing on supermarkets means that the USDA ignores tens of thousands of larger and smaller retailers, farmers' markets and roadside greengrocers.
  • Together, they account for more than half of the country's trillion-dollar retail food market.

No surprise, then, that neither USDA nor the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has been able to establish a causal link between food deserts and dietary health.  In fact, both agree that merely improving access to healthy food does not change consumer behavior, says The Economist.

Source: "If You Build It, They May Not Come: A Shortage of Healthy Food Is Not the Only Problem," The Economist, July 7, 2011.

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