As the fight against obesity makes its way through various political channels, it is easy to see how lawmakers could get caught up in the idea that something should be done to provide better access to healthier foods for poorer people where nutritious foods are said to be lacking. But the government-centric solutions being discussed now are far from a panacea.
Several “food desert” bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature aiming to address the issue by establishing a revolving loan program for grocery stores and larger convenience stores like Walgreens. But is it the solution? Or are we merely creating another government program for its own sake? The research suggests the latter.
Dr. Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California conducted a study, featured in the New York Times, to find how populous supermarkets are in these food deserts. Here were the results:
“She used census tracts to define neighborhoods because they tend to have economically homogeneous populations. Poor neighborhoods, Dr. Lee found, had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.” [emphasis mine]
Dr. Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation ran two studies on the topic. According to the NYT:
“With financing from the National Institutes of Health, he used data on the self-reported heights, weights, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and teenagers in the California Health Interview Survey…He used a different data set to see what food outlets were nearby. 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. [emphasis mine]
He has also completed a national study of middle school students, with the same result – no consistent relationship between what the students ate and the type of food nearby. Living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat.”
Availability is not the issue here, and while it may “feel good” to do something about this issue via another government program, the research clearly shows it to be a questionable proposition at best.