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June 12 2012

The Strength of the Food Desert Myth

Julie Gunlock

Washington Post health writer Sarah Kliff was trying to be fair in her June 8th article asking “Will Philadelphia’s experiment in eradicating ‘food deserts’ work?

Kliff explains that with the highest obesity rate among America’s largest cities, Philadelphia has launched the mother of all anti-obesity efforts (I have an op-ed today on Townhall.com focusing on the failure of these anti-obesity efforts), by spending nearly $1 million to put fruits and vegetables in each of Philadelphia’s 632 corner stores.

Kliff is fair when she points out that this new health experiment will be hard on corner store owners because of the unique risks faced by small shops owners.  She points out that vegetables have a limited shelf life, and because shelf space is minimal in corner stores, shop owners must be careful how they stock their stores (in other words, they need to stock items that move off the shelves).  Kliff also points out that the owners of these small shops simply can’t buy in bulk from cheaper wholesalers which means they spend more money to stock their stores (unlike larger grocery stores which regularly purchase stock from these wholesalers).

Kliff also questions the connection between these so-called food deserts and obesity, pointing out that “even as the White House has scaled up such [anti-obesity] efforts, a growing body of research has questioned its basic assumption: that people will eat better if given better options. Multiple studies have scoured local, state and national data looking for a causal relationship between weight and access to healthy food. None has found it.”

Yet, despite this balanced reporting, Kliff still struggles to come to terms with whether these programs will ultimately help people slim down.  Her confusion on this issue is strange given an article she wrote a month earlier; the headline screamed “Don’t blame food deserts for obesity.”

In this May 7th article, Kliff covered a new study from the RAND Corporation which found “no correlation between what food sources kids lived near, what the kids ate and how much they weighed.”  Interviewing RAND economist Roland Sturm, Kliff asked him why people don’t eat better when they live next to a supermarket (that offers more fruits and vegetables).  Strum answered that since most people have access to motorized vehicles, “where they get their food could have little to do with what’s directly in their neighborhood.”

Kliff mentions the RAND study (as well as other studies that debunk the “food deserts cause obesity” myth) in her June 8th piece and repeats the fact that “To date, no study has found a causal relationship between improving access to healthy foods and improving health outcomes.”  Yet, Kliff still can’t accept that food deserts have little to do with obesity.

In her June 8th piece on Philadelphia’s new initiative, she closes by calling into question the very studies she cites throughout her article, suggesting the studies haven’t been detailed enough and proposes that the Philadelphia’s study (which will study the impact of these new “healthy” corner stores) “may deliver a breakthrough.”

Kliff isn’t alone. It's normal to want to find that silver bullet; that one thing that will finally cure obesity.  If finding the cure--or the government-funded program that alleviates the problem--is Kliff’s goal, she’ll have a long career in investigative journalism searching for that elusive thing that, frankly, does not exist.  Obesity is a complicated matter. Several factors impact a person’s weight.  Investing government dollars to tackle only one of the contributing factors will do nothing to alter the outcome.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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