The silver lining of the food desert study

A study published earlier this week debunked one of the primary explanations for why obesity disproportionately affects poor people. According to the Los Angeles Times, researchers found that better access to supermarkets did not positively affect the diets of poor people. The findings contradict the argument that food deserts — geographical areas that are devoid of healthy food options — are a driving factor for obesity among poor people.

The food desert argument is a very plausible one. Urban and rural areas inhabited by poor people often do not have supermarkets in their immediate vicinity. Consequently, residents of those areas have to rely on fast food restaurants and convenience stores to access food. These food sources primarily feature highly caloric items which, when consumed often enough, can drive obesity. On this view, the lack of access to healthy food options for poor communities is driving the obesity epidemic. If we want to remedy the problem, we need to find ways to end food deserts, and bring healthy food options to those who do not currently have them.

Although this argument makes good sense, it is apparently not supported by the data. In this particular study, researchers analyzed the diets of 5,000 study participants and found that their food choices did not change when healthier options came into their areas. The study does not prove that geographical access to healthy food is not necessary for a good diet. But it does prove that access alone is not sufficient. Individuals with low incomes and a proximity to fast food options still pursue those options whether healthier food is available or not.

These findings do not conflict with the idea that the conditions of poverty are a driving factor in the obesity epidemic. In fact, the researchers claim that having a low income was one of the primary factors that predicted a bad diet. Given that healthy foods cost more than unhealthy foods, low-income individuals are in a position where genuine access — not just geographical access — is not present. As long as healthier food remains more expensive and more time consuming than unhealthier food and poor people remain poor, the obesity epidemic will continue to plague poor communities whether food deserts exist or not.

Although the findings are somewhat disappointing, there is a silver lining to it. Recently Walmart has used the claim that they can help alleviate food deserts to try to get approval to build in cities in which they were previously unable. With this new study, that rhetorical approach suffers a serious blow.

It is clear that simply providing access to healthy food will not be enough. If poor communities do not also receive higher wages — something Walmart certainly will not provide — the increased geographical access will amount to nothing. Poor residents will still be forced to resort to unhealthy food options, and obesity and other diseases related to poor food will not be curbed at all. Walmart’s expansion might alleviate the problem of geographical access to healthy food, but its employment policies exacerbate the problem of genuine access to it.

Now that we know that geographical access does not, by itself, help with problems of food inequality, we can focus on the issue that everyone always hates to focus on instead — poverty.