Why Throwing Groceries Into Food Deserts Won’t Help Cut Obesity

Areas controversially named ‘food deserts’ where there is little or no access to healthy foods have been put under scrutiny in relation to the obesity epidemic which is affecting many first world countries. Food deserts are urban areas where grocery stores and supermarkets have been pushed out resulting in the only foods readily available are to be had from fast food restaurants.

It was thought that obesity was endemic in these areas because they mainly occurred in poorer districts: Poor people with no access to the means to prepare their own diets equates to an over-consumption of junk food. While not having access to groceries does mean that people will have to order fast food more, the lack of access to markets doesn’t seem to be the primary cause of being overweight.

To clarify, people who do have access to fresh meat, fruit and vegetables are as much a part of the weight problem as those who have little or no access to such ingredients. A study which has been observing thousands of participants for 15 years found that the subjects didn’t eat better just because there was better food available to them, the deciding factors were income and the availability of fast food.

It would be nice to think that people would eat better and lose weight if only they had a grocery nearby where they could get their fresh produce to cook their own balanced meals but the evidence suggests a different story. It’s not the lack of access to good food that drives up the width of the waistband but the ease of access to bad foods. It would be nice to also think that encouraging markets to open up in areas where obesity is a problem would go some way to resolving the issue but it seems rather not. russian food store

The study has been conducted by Barry Popkin, director at the Nutrition Transition Program based in the University of North Carolina. It observes that notwithstanding everything else, the grocery is chock full of poor health choices as well as the good. Also, a fresh food shopping bill will invariably come to more in cost than a few burgers and fries, therefore it seems more expensive to buy store cupboard foods than ready to go processed food. Popkin says: “This raises the serious issue of how we get people to eat healthy.”

Popkin’s study had been observing African-American and white adults from Birmingham Alabama, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oakland California since 1985 and the results were published this year. The survey includes data like the participant’s diet and the distance they lived from either fresh produce or fast food. However, the survey hasn’t information on height, weight or BMI. It was able to confirm the findings of other surveys that proximity to fast food was clearly concomitant with greater fast food consumption, particularly among low income males.

Unfortunately the inverse wasn’t found to be the case, ie, that being proximate with healthy food supplies meant that consumers made that choice. Popkin said that his study had found, much like others, that the introduction of a supermarket into a previously food deserted area did not significantly increase the eating of fresh fruit and vegetables among the badly off. In both Scotland and New York City research found no identifiable impact between supermarket locality and the people’s consumption of fresh foods.

Policy reformers have been pushing to change the disparity between the number of fast food restaurants and groceries in recent years, So, while it’s true that if there are more supermarkets and fewer fast food places there is an effect, simply increasing the number of food markets itself without removing fast food joints, it won’t noticeably improve public health.