Confusion around food deserts

The reason poor people face so many problems is that they do not have very much money. This seems like a simple point, so simple in fact that even raising it borders on condescension. But this fact seems lost on a great number of so-called activists. One such group of activists are those who call themselves food justice activists. Among other things, these activists seek the elimination of food deserts, but seem confused as to what causes them.

Food deserts are residential areas that lack close access to supermarkets. In such deserts, the only nearby food comes from corner stores and fast food restaurants, which often have fairly unhealthy options. Why do food deserts exist? Poor people do not have very much money. That is, supermarkets do not open up in poor areas because poor people do not have very much money to spend on their wares.

Oddly enough, food justice advocates think the solution to food deserts is to somehow bring supermarkets into these poor areas. Although such a remedy does, by definition, end the food desert, it clearly does not end the problem, which is lack of access to healthy food. Researchers have found that bringing supermarkets into poor neighborhoods does not increase the consumption of healthy food among the poor residents. Income, along with proximity to fast food, turned out to be the strongest factor in food choice, not supermarket proximity.

Of course, this should be entirely predictable. Putting a supermarket in a poor neighborhood does not change the fact that the people in the neighborhood are poor. It does not, as the research shows, have any impact whatsoever on poor people’s genuine access to healthy food. It brings the food geographically closer, but alas, the food still seems to cost money that poor people do not have or wish to spend in that manner.

As is frustratingly common, the food justice advocates have the entire thing backwards. The same thing that causes food deserts to exist is what causes them to persist — in effect — even when supermarkets come into the area. It is not proximity to grocery stores that matters; it is income. Providing the poor with higher incomes will eliminate food deserts and increase their genuine access — not just geographical access — to healthy foods.

Perhaps food justice advocates should abandon whatever organizations they have aligned with and help start the organization I suggested a month ago called Give Poor People Money for America. Through this program, they could help achieve food justice, education justice, health justice, Starbucks justice, and any other economically-rooted justice they so desire. Generally speaking, when the problem is economic inequality, the solution is less economic inequality. As the food desert research has shown, nothing else will do.