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The USDA, Ezra Klein and Food Deserts

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supermarketproducerick.jpgLike many people working in the trenches to combat the scourge of “food deserts” in America, I was excited to hear the USDA was releasing a new study about the problem. With the overwhelming scientific evidence showing a lack of access to healthy food is a detriment to our health, the spotlight from the USDA was quite welcome.

While the USDA should be commended for looking at the food desert issue, it seemed to miss the boat on the depth, breadth, and consequences of the problem.

By the report’s own admission, 23.5 million Americans live in low-income communities without a grocery store within walking distance. That’s about one in every 13 people. That doesn’t seem to jibe with the study’s first finding that “access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households.”

But more odd is the study’s relative dismissal of the benefits of healthy eating and the real fallout from living in a community with little or no access to fresh food. There has been significant scientific research showing the vital role fresh food consumption and access play in our health:

  • A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found fruit and vegetable consumption among African Americans rose 32 percent with each additional local food store.
  • A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found lowest rates of obesity (21 percent) among people living in neighborhoods with supermarkets or grocery stores and the highest rates of obesity (32-40 percent) among people living in places with no supermarkets and access to only smaller grocery stores and convenience stores.
  • A 2007 national study of more than 70,000 teens found that increased availability of chain supermarkets was associated with lower rates of being overweight
  • A March 2009 study in Indianapolis showed adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood translated into a 3 pound weight decrease for residents.

This a public health issue, plain and simple. As we demonstrated in the 2008 report, Designed for Disease: The Link Between Local Food Environments and Obesity and Diabetes, people living in neighborhoods crowded with fast-food and convenience stores but relatively few grocery or produce outlets have a significantly higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes.

In Ezra Klein’s blog post for the Washington Post today, he says that food deserts aren’t the problem. “The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores,” he writes.

But this is not an either-or proposition. Designed for Disease showed clearly that a dramatically unbalanced food environment is a direct health risk. Having no food choices at all is just as problematic as having a glut of bad food choices.

Photo used under a Creative Common License from Flickr user Spine (aka Rick)

Written by Judith Bell

June 26th, 2009 at 6:34 pm