Gina Kolata’s recent article in the New York Times posited that the correlation between food deserts (urban or rural areas that lack access to healthy, affordable food) and obesity is not as pronounced as has been publicized.
Kolata’s instantly controversial piece is based on two studies that focus on the presence of food deserts in urban areas only. She writes that one new study, conducted by Dr. Helen Lee, reported an expected proliferation of fast food restaurants and corner stores in urban “food deserts,” but also a higher presence of grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants than in more well-off neighborhoods. While the other study, by Dr. Roland Sturm, concluded that there is no connection between childhood and adolescent obesity and the food sold in these neighborhoods. Sturm went so far as to rename food deserts “food swamps” due to the overflowing options of food within a couple of miles.
But food deserts aren’t defined by access alone. Michel Nischan, chef and founder of Wholesome Wave, tells Food Republic that economic factors play a key role in the discussion. “You’re hard pressed to find a place in the U.S. where there are absolutely no fruits and vegetables, but what matters is how much they cost and what the disposable income is of the people who need access to it the most,” he says.
Moreover, the presence of grocery stores doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality fruits and vegetables. As the deputy executive director of Food Trust, John Weidman, says in the Times’ article, “not all grocery stores are equal.” Nor does First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign purport that increasing the number of grocery stores alone will solve obesity.
“Changing dietary patterns requires even more: to use fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains, people have to know how to prepare and cook them, and have facilities and time for doing so. They also have to be able to afford to buy what’s available,” says Dr. Marion Nestle of NYU.
On the USDA’s website, Let’s Move!’s initiative to eliminate food deserts is referred to as “one key component” in the fight against obesity. (Increased education through tools like MyPlate being another.) Along with education efforts, Nestle maintains that more support for healthier eating is necessary in the new farm bill.
Whether the studies Kolata mentions in The Times will impact the USDA’s commitment to eradicate food deserts remains to be seen. If anything, it might drive the organization to strengthen the nutritional education programs within Let’s Move!, which can only be a positive thing.
“Most people who study and identify food deserts are on the right rack, but in my view their focus is too narrow because it’s not just about access, period,” says Nischan.