Janesville20.6°

A lifestyle, not a food, choice

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Esther Cepeda
April 26, 2012
— Are you the least bit surprised that simply irrigating the nation’s so-called “food deserts” with more fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t result in healthier communities?

Two recent studies, one from the RAND Corp., and another from the Public Policy Institute of California, report that low-income neighborhoods, in addition to having more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, also have more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants than do more-affluent neighborhoods. A New York Times article summarizing the findings declared: “There is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.”


This should come as no shock to anyone who actually lives in or near a food desert—as I do.


The food-desert locator on the usda.gov website says my home sits immediately east of the only food desert within an 11-mile radius. Yet, this particular slice of a predominantly Hispanic community is served by multiple Mexican grocery stores, all within walking distance, that offer wide selections of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats at lower prices than the major grocery chain store sitting three miles down the road.


Sadly, the availability of such a bounty of healthy fare has not prevented the majority of the student body in our area’s school district from being either overweight or obese.


That the elimination of food deserts is not as effective as once hoped for has been well-researched. It’s been long known that opening a new grocery store in a neighborhood barely nudges vegetable consumption—a 2002 study out of Leeds, England, measured the increase at a scant one-third of a cup daily—if at all.


Long before these two reports made national waves for taking a knock at what some food policy wonks had previously treated as a sure thing in the fight against spiraling obesity and rampant malnutrition, critics were noting that neither the USDA nor the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM) ever established a causal link between food deserts and dietary health.


A July 2011 article in The Economist observed this sad reality of human nature: “Both (the USDA and IOM) agree that merely improving access to healthy food does not change consumer behavior. Open a full-service supermarket in a food desert and shoppers tend to buy the same artery-clogging junk food as before—they just pay less for it. The unpalatable truth seems to be that some Americans simply do not care to eat a balanced diet, while others, increasingly, cannot afford to.”


Because there is no concrete correlation between a community’s stock of healthy food and actual healthy bodies, the latest research dramatically underscores the multifaceted nature of the fight against obesity. In order to address our out-of-control epidemic, increased availability of healthful food is but the key precursor to making good nutritional choices over bad ones.


Last summer the medical journal The Lancet reported that if we don’t blunt the fattening of America, half of all adults will be obese by 2030. Yet the government interventions that study suggested—such as regulating the way unhealthy foods are marketed, taxing less-healthy food options such as sugary soda and salty snacks, and subsidizing fruits and vegetables to make them more affordable than bags of Cheetos—are nowhere near becoming a reality because of those fearful of the nanny state and their corporate backers.


And those brave enough to even hint that maybe food stamps should be restricted so frozen pizzas, boxes of instant macaroni and cheese, candy, and other junk foods are no longer eligible items routinely get shouted down by those who can’t stand the thought of federal aid having meaningful strings attached.


The bottom line is that America, especially low-income America, needs to be taught how to consume balanced meals and fit exercise into their lives so occasional treats and splurges will do no harm. This education effort—backed up by a wide array of effective government sticks and carrots—must happen through schools, doctors’ offices and community organizations.


Only in such a utopia will grocers in former and current food deserts feel a profitable demand for both healthy fare and their stable of treats.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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