Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

Access Games

Like all privileged liberals, I naturally assume I know what’s best for poor people. It begins with my Judeo-Christian ethic: what’s good for me is naturally good for them. If I can buy local, organic produce at my enthusiastically over-priced farmers’ market, so should they. If I can easily drive, or better yet, bicycle to any number of cool food stores, then so should the economically disadvantaged. And if I can purchase $20 a pound wild-caught salmon at Whole Foods and serve it up, elegantly accessorized with perfectly seasoned kale and a brilliantly selected wine to an intimate party of six, then why shouldn’t everyone? I guess you could call these my ideas of food justice.

This is why I’m experiencing a spasm of cognitive dissonance over recent articles and studies challenging the value of developing new retail food stores in “food deserts,” communities or neighborhoods which lack high quality and affordable grocery stores. Though the term food desert has stirred up a dust storm of angst among food activists, liberals generally like the phrase because it’s about as gritty as they allow their language to get, to say nothing of how its opposite – an oasis – conjures up paradisiacal playing fields of equity. In fact, for people like me and those who look like me, the concept of food deserts rattles our social justice bones like an 18-wheeler hurtling down a narrow city street.

So imagine my dismay when a study published in Health Affairs (February, 2014) concluded that adding supermarkets to areas with short supplies of fresh produce does not lead to improvements in residents’ diets or health outcomes. Apparently, a new grocery store that opened in a Philadelphia food desert had no appreciable impact on the BMI, fruit and veg intake, or perceptions of food accessibility among the store’s shoppers (“BMI” or body mass index is the most commonly used measure of healthy/unhealthy weight).

Reporting on the same topic, Heather Gilligan (Slate, 2/10/14) cited several studies, including a 2011 one in the Archive of Internal Medicine that showed “no connection between access to grocery stores and more healthful diets.” Ms. Gilligan went on to note that the Obama Administration had distributed $500 million under the government’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative in an effort to re-store food deserts and counter their negative health impacts. Another $125 million for the same purpose was recently included in the newly signed Farm Bill.

In a vigorous rebuttal on Huffington Post (2/20/14), three of the leading advocates of better food access (Don Hinkle-Brown, Yael Lehmann, and Judith Bell) reminded us that “healthy food can bring triple bottom-line benefits to communities – better health, new jobs, and a revitalized economy.” They of course cited their own phalanx of studies that supposedly demonstrated clear connections between better health outcomes and improved food access.

Since receiving a gentleman’s “C” in my undergraduate sociology methods course, I’ve been officially barred from commenting on the validity of social science research. But after working for 25 years in Hartford, Connecticut whose Saharan-size food deserts exacted a heavy toll on the entire city, especially lower-income neighborhoods, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would prefer to live in a place where healthy, interesting, and not-over-priced food is readily available. And I still believe in my liberal heart of hearts that everyone deserves the same, whether it’s good for them or not.

During my years in Hartford (chronicled in my first book Closing the Food Gap), I witnessed the exodus of 13 chain supermarkets, the metastasizing of a toxic food environment in the form of dozens of convenience stores, fast food joints, donut shops, and a tragic growth in obesity that paralleled the decline of the city’s food scape.

The deterioration of Hartford’s physical space and the rise in crime contributed to health problems as well. Mothers in the city’s toughest neighborhoods told me they would not allow their children outdoors for fear of being victims of drive-by shootings, or getting stuck by one of the discarded hypodermic needles that littered nearly every vacant lot. Unhealthy food, low incomes, and no place to play larded on calories that would never be burned off.

As I spelled out in Closing the Food Gap, the rise in obesity was not so much caused by the flight of supermarkets and the emergence of food swamps – places with an overabundance of junk food outlets. In fact, the flight of supermarkets was spurred by the city’s descent into poverty, and like everything else in the good-old-US-of-A, the abysmal wealth gap. As suburbs became richer and whiter, and the cities became poorer and browner, businesses, restaurants, and grocery stores fled to the ‘burbs. This is also the underlying point that Ms. Gilligan makes in her Slate piece, that more supermarkets won’t stem the tide of obesity – ending poverty will.

Maybe and maybe not. While we know that politicians have little appetite for ending poverty, we know they can be persuaded to spend money at the altar of free enterprise, e.g. investing in for-profit supermarkets. We also know that, in spite of growing public opinion that favors obesity reduction through the regulation of unhealthy food, e.g. soda taxes, banning trans-fats, those industries will spend tens of millions to fight regulation to the death. Terminating the advertising of junk food to children, valued at $4.6 billion annually according to Yale University’s Rudd Center, would also have a marked effect on childhood weight which, if kept at healthy levels in youth would be a lesser problem in adulthood. Yet, our policymakers have generally proven gutless when asked to stand up to Big Sugar and Big Fat.

Since the stick is politically unfeasible, we are forced to resort to the carrot as our next best policy tool; hence, the large expenditure of public dollars on the development of supermarkets. In light of my experience in Hartford, I find this course painfully ironic. Even if you accept the supermarket industry’s explanation for the wholesale abandonment of struggling cities – that they simply couldn’t make a go of it in impoverished communities – you can’t turn a blind eye to their moral culpability. After all, little evidence was provided to show that they lost money on city stores, we only knew they could make a lot more money on suburban stores. They turned their backs on the most socially and economically stressed places in America and cast a racist glance backwards as they outright “redlined” hundreds of communities.  These acts of injustice contributed significantly to making our cities some of the physically sickest places on earth.

So before we bathe that industry in public cash to entice it back into the hungry food desert marketplace, a market that they played a major role in creating, let’s at least be respectful of how we spend the taxpayers’ money. There are, after all, at least two definitions of justice: the one we liberals use which is to ensure that everyone has equal access to life’s necessities, and the moral one that says if you somehow escape punishment for your transgressions, you certainly shouldn’t be rewarded for committing them.

Meanwhile, back on the streets of my old hometown, Hartford continues to struggle with the legacy of supermarket abandonment. Obesity rates are still high – 37 percent of the city’s 3 to 5 year olds are overweight or obese according to a 2012 University of Connecticut study – but early intervention activities that target preschoolers are showing some promising preliminary results. Residents have more choice in their food supply due to a good number of medium-size independent grocery stores as well as seasonal farmers’ markets, but serious inequities persist. A recent study of the greater Hartford retail environment (University of Saint Joseph, Hartford Food System, and the University of Connecticut – January 2014) found that city stores gave residents ample access to affordable, healthy food, but the quality of large suburban supermarket stores and produce was far superior.

According to Martha Page, executive director of the Hartford Food System, city government and non-profit groups are making progress with the hoped-for development of a new supermarket in Hartford’s North End, an area that hasn’t seen one in decades. Recognizing that a supermarket is only part of the answer, however, Ms. Page said, “Simply opening a grocery store doesn’t guarantee anything, but without the access it provides, efforts to address affordability, cooking skills, nutrition, and the effective use of food assistance benefits [e.g. SNAP] become much harder to accomplish.”

Since this nation isn’t ready to tackle big ticket items like poverty, or stare down the black hats of bad food, we need to carefully consider the opportunity costs of various policy and programmatic interventions. What “we” think is good for others isn’t a bad place to start, but we better ask the nomads of our food deserts what they want before we get too far down one particular road.  It’s too easy to fixate on one high-cost strategy; let’s review the evidence first, and give equal measure to all actions. As in nature, diversity usually yields the best result.

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2 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Frank Franklin
    February 27, 2014 at 5:14 am #

    Excellent column. The most promising strategy to improve intake and health of low income households would be subsidies for vegetables and for whole grains. Sin taxes likely would have little impact. Targeting this program to low income families is more feasible and politically doable than an overall attack on poverty. Such subsidies could be done simply within SNAP. The subsides would drive demand for these healthier foods leading to stores in poor communities stocking more of the subsidized healthy foods. The increased availability and access would further drive intake. Thus a virtuous cycle is possible.
    It is also feasible to provide incentives to small and large food markets for sales of these healthier foods. Targeted incentives are likely to be more effective than simply opening a supermarket largely filled with an array of processed foods. These proposed subsidies and incentives are testable hypotheses and well-evaluated pilot studies would be informative. If fast food chains test their new products in limited areas, why don’t the feds test to find what’s best?

  2. Carl Skalak
    March 12, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m what passe for an urban farmer in my city and have had an up close and personal view of the “food desert’ discussion for some time. And as it so happens because I’m a farmer I know bullshit when I see it, smell or step in it. “Food desert” has that distinctive odor about it. But because some people are offended when you reduce their favorite arguments to a barnyard epithet and because I am semi edumakated let me try to put it in more academic speak:

    The “food desert” is an intellectually lazy, simplistic, and naive metaphor for what is a very complex social issue. While it may be true that if there is no fresh produce in d’ hood you can’t buy it, it does not follow that putting a farmers market, or a supermarket if you prefer, on every street corner is going to make a tinker’s dam worth of difference to most residents. “If you build it they will come” was Hollywood fiction. More simply put: bullshit.

    Access is not the problem. I have a market on my farm and participated for two years in another urban market near by. Both markets are in so-called “food deserts.” Both markets have easy access to public transportation and large residential communities just yards away. I can’t get people to walk across the street to discover how outrageously expensive my food is. And yet the residents choose to patronize the corner store for their needs. And those needs don’t seem to include fresh fruit & vegetables.

    Even the markets that accept SNAP, Senior Nutrition Program and Produce Perks struggle to find customers for the fresh products. Free govt money for fresh food and yet frozen pizza is the more common choice.

    I’m not so sure that ending poverty will make much of a difference either. More and more Americans are choosing to not prepare their own foods; at all income levels. If you haven’t already read “Kitchen Literacy” it’s worth the time to understand how we got to where we are.

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