NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity

April 20, 2012

As a part of her "Let's Move" campaign against American obesity, Michelle Obama has declared the elimination of food deserts to be essential.  Arguing that poor neighborhoods lack access to healthy food options like fresh fruit and vegetables, Mrs. Obama argues that parents and children are forced to accept less-healthy alternatives.  Yet two recent studies find that food deserts are not as prevalent as suggested, and that the role they play in causing obesity is marginal at best, says the New York Times.

  • Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California conducted a federal study of 8,000 children, incorporating data about their home and school locations and the proximity of nearby food options.
  • She found that poor neighborhoods have nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones -- a more-likely explanation for the prevalence of obesity among the poor.
  • She also found that they had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile and more than three times as many corner stores per square mile.

This data suggests that the nation's poor do not face a lack of healthy food options, and that the much-touted food deserts are not as significant as the first lady has suggested.

Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation used a similar methodology in a study of 13,000 California teenagers.  His results, which have since been repeated in a supplemental study of middle school children nationwide, also take aim at the strategy employed by Let's Move.

  • Dr. Sturm found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes.
  • He concluded that living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat.

These studies and others suggest that the employment of food deserts as the boogieman of obesity is misleading, and that attempting to eliminate them will prove fruitless.

Source: Gina Kolata, "Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity," New York Times, April 17, 2012.  Helen Lee, "The Role of Local Food Availability in Explaining Obesity Risk among Young School-Aged Children," Public Policy Institute of California, April 10, 2012.  Ruopeng An and Roland Sturm, "School and Residential Neighborhood Food Environment and Diet among California Youth," American Journal of Preventive Medicine, February 2012.

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