By Audrey Quinn
Posting in Cities
Poor urban neighborhoods actually have more supermarkets than wealthier areas, and food access doesn't even correlate to child obesity. People in these neighborhoods are still unhealthy, but it's going to take more than new produce stands or urban gardens to fix this.
The concept of food deserts first came about in the UK in the early nineties. The narrative goes like this: poor urban neighborhoods suffer from poor health due to lack of access to fresh food. And concern over this has taken off stateside in recent years.
Cities across the country have instituted new produce carts, urban gardens, and farmers markets -- wonderful, progressive, and healthful programs.
The only problem? They're missing the point.
- Poor urban neighborhoods actually have more supermarkets per square mile than wealthier neighborhoods.
- There's no observed relationship between how well children eat and the food available near their homes.
- Food access doesn't correlate to child obesity.
Debunk, debunk, debunked.
Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, tells Gina Kolata of the Times:
"It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores. But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking."
We clearly need a more comprehensive approach to addressing nutrition in underprivileged neighborhoods.
I'm not one to argue with bringing more fresh food to impoverished neighborhoods. But until public health campaigns bring greater focus to our overall relationship with food and respect for our bodies, those new organic produce stands are going to primarily benefit people already converted to healthful eating.
[via The New York Times]
Photo: Paul Lowry/Flickr
Apr 18, 2012
Some of the problem is what the parent has learned as a child. I have a friend who does not know how to cook and has 5 kids. She grew up making grilled cheese in a microwave. Her mother never taught her, and there were no cooking classes in school. If you grow up eating sugary cereal, drinking soda for breakfast, and if you turn down broccoli and your parent does not get you to try some of everything, you teach your kids what you learned. My friend is doing better, she watches Dr. Oz and others, but it is hard to unlearn all those bad habits.
The reason urban poor people make bad food choices leading to obesity has nothing to do with availability of nutritious foods, government policy notwithstanding. Poor households are led by parents who can't or won't prepare good food for their children or themselves, so fast food fills the gap and it tastes better too. Poor kids throw away lunches formulated to be nutritious and get cheeseburgers, fries, etc. which they seem to have money buy despite being poor. If they eat at home, it is usually mac & cheese or takeout, yet we blame "society" for such bad choices, among may others. Your article is a refreshing and provocative exposure of another poverty industry myth.
Site location is a science for supermarket chains. They'll put stores where there's enough people to provide a customer base. So it may be that supermarkets are located closer together in poorer urban areas than they are in wealthier areas because the population density is higher in the poorer areas. Secondly, not all supermarkets are created equal. An older building might be 30,000 square foot in size & a newly built one 60,000 square feet. Poorer areas tend to have older, therefore smaller stores & wealthier areas tend to have newer, larger stores. Thirdly, a relatively new factor is groceries sold by discount stores such as Walmart, Target & Costco. A better measure than store count is square feet devoted to groceries per capita. Then comes qualitative measures such as the fraction of space devoted to, say, fresh produce rather than, say, processed meats.
Our local newspaper just ran a series of articles about this issue. I believe there are some areas where there are not grocery stores, but it still all goes back to choices. A local hospital ran a billboard that stated "Obesity is a disease, not a decision." Excuse me, it is 100% a decision to eat and not to exercise. Thanks for showing common sense still prevails. Leanne Hoagland-Smith
I knew this whole food desert concept and the data behind it was a joke when the US government web site on food deserts showed Seabrook NH as a food desert. There are 3 large grocery stores in the town, and several smaller food stores. The large ones are equally spread north to south on the state highway. I found several other local mistakes, but that was the most glaring example. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html
A few name brands, like Campbells, will occasionally give away recipe books with X labels mailed in. Anyone can afford a stamp and an envelope if they truly want to learn to cook. All it takes is the will to learn and anyone can learn to cook even basic simple meals. I know teens who learned to cook BECAUSE their parents did not and they wanted a decent meal. Dr Oz has told many people to take responsibility for their lives and move on from their past. She can learn new good habits if she really wants to. Stop making excuses. You are not helping your friend. What is your excuse for not teaching her?
I have had food boxes from a food pantry, and I have friends who have. They are loaded with cakes, cookies, snacks, chips, pasta, carbs, carbs and more carbs. A few rotting veggies, and the stuff the grocery stores can't sell like organic fennel. I am reasonably well read, but I had to look it up how to fix fennel. There were sacks of it. Last week the school was giving away food, I have huge sacks of brussel sprouts, lucky I love them and so did some of my friends. A lot of people hate them. They had a huge bin full of them and rotting tomatoes. We also got lettuce that was rotted in the middle. There is just so much you can do with stuff like that.
Urban areas and rural alike are full of hidden food gems. I can think of 10 great food stores that are all under 2,000 square feet within 2 miles of where I sit. They are mom and pop specialty stores and they do exist in larger numbers than most people want to admit. All of them sell quality food at affordable prices. We have 2 bakeries that sell far better bread products, taste and health wise, and more a more diverse selection than any large market at comparable prices. You want fruit and vegetables? We have an Asian market that puts Whole Foods to shame with the variety, quality and affordable organic fruits and vegetables they sell. Meat pies? Steak? Sausage? Chicken? Local organic eggs? Locally made ice cream? Local organic milk? In season add another 6 farmers markets spread across just 2 small cities. Fresh locally grown vegetables at affordable prices are abundant in a city with a 25 percent unemployment rate, third generation welfare families and a shockingly high percentage of obese and morbidly obese people among those groups. By far most of the farmers market customers are people who come to the city to work. Not the residents. In recognition of this fact a new farmers market, #7 if you are counting, is to open at one of the local train stations this summer to make shopping more convenient for commuters. It is all about life style choices.
Two comments. How do you measure the square footage of a WalMart store when only a fraction is for food? Stores like Walmart are not in most large cities because unions are actively opposing them.
...since people are more willing to fund efforts against "diseases" than they are for "poor lifestyle decisions". Of course, the problem is that as a society we'll never be able to beat obesity as a "disease", since "diseases" are things that mostly just happen to people, and usually not the result of behavior that can be avoided or changed. If I'm fat because I have a disease, well, then it's just not my fault.
... and can you afford the quality stuff? These are the nutritional details that simple reviews of store location don't answer. There's a grocery down the block from me, but it's produce counter is only about 10 ft. long and the offerings look trampled. I only shop there for a quick gallon of milk or such. Fortunately there are plenty of other shopping options in reasonable driving distance, with much better selection. And, of course, the fact that I have a car and $$ and am able to get to those options sets me apart from many folk in my city.
Thanks. I've had a similar feeling about my neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a so-called food desert. I feel like I have more food options here than anywhere else in the city. But, I grew up conditioned to appreciate about good food and care about what I put in my body, and I think that affects my eating habits far more than my actual food options.
During a recent food drive outside a local Walmart I had a chance to look over the boxes of donations. There was not a cookie in sight. I did see lots of canned, no salt added, vegetables and yes pasta. Pasta can be a healthy and affordable donation. To people who are truly starving, pasta can be an easy and filling dinner. Like all carbs, in moderation they are a healthy part of a persons diet. I have seen food pantries that buy cookies by the case with cash donations they receive. Which is why I no longer donate to those food pantrys. If your school was giving away rotted food I think someone should be fired. They likely over ordered or someone bought food for a healthy meal plan and the cooks ignored it or did not know how to prepare them. Rather than get pissed off about getting rotted food how about getting mad at the people spending our tax dollars in such a wasteful manner.
2 of the stores are actually owned by the same regional chain, Market Basket. They sell quality food at reasonable prices. They will often place 2 stores in geographically large or population dense cities and towns. They have numerous inner city stores well within walking distance of people. Back when the food stamp program actually had restrictions on the kinds of food and standards of quality on the foods that could be purchased Market Basket was the only store chain that sold quality food and accepted food stamps. None of the other chains in the area met the food standards or would not take food stamps. All of their stores have fresh fruit and vegetables with a large organic selection available.
Affording the "quality" (typically designated as the more expensive or premium items) is a good point. Having been poor (not just "no Starbucks today"-poor, but poor - poor), I can say fairly confidently that one can almost find (and afford) good quality food, regardless of location. Even if it is possibly trampled, it can be trimmed and prepared and made into tasty, healthy, appealing food -- but regardless of the cost or availability, it requires effort and knowledge to eat properly (both proper variety and amount). "Food Deserts"? Another crock of... non-nutritional stuff.
You remind me of an interesting flaw in the government data on that web site. Large parts of Maine NH and VT have no food stores for up to 50 miles, yet they are not marked as food deserts. Why? Inaccurate data supporting a pointless designation.