Let’s Move — Away From Food Deserts

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Childhood Obesity News has been looking at the history of the Let’s Move! program initiated and promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, as it has unfolded over the last couple of years. It announced four objectives: to educate and empower parents, provide more healthful foods to school children, make it easier for those in underserved neighborhoods to obtain fresher and more nutritious food, and to encourage more physical activity. The basic idea, of course, is that healthy eating choices, plus more exercise, are the sum total of childhood obesity epidemic causation, a notion that Childhood Obesity News strives to overturn.

About a year after its inception, LA Times writer Jessica Pauline Ogilvie reflected on both the specific bullet points and the larger goals of Let’s Move!. She said:

Can childhood obesity be eliminated in a generation? Will we ever get our children away from video games and into the park? Is there anything to be done about neighborhoods with a plethora of fast-food outlets and a dearth of options for eating healthfully?

Ogilvie consulted a few specialists whose responses are interesting to look back on. James Hill, who directs the Colorado Nutrition Obesity Research Center, told the reporter that pragmatic measures like putting nutrition information on packaging would be much less of a challenge than modifying the behavior of parents. Dr. William Roberts of the American College of Sports Medicine also emphasized the importance of changing the hearts and minds of grownups:

I can often see who will have trouble with obesity and who won’t from looking at the parents; obese parents have obese kids, and active parents have active kids.

The “food desert” concept has proved to be controversial. Those who scoff at the very idea are at one end of the spectrum, and folks like philosopher Raj Patel (who sees rural America turning into one big food desert) and urban activist LaDonna Redmond at the other. In March of 2010, Mrs. Obama gave a speech in which she described food deserts as areas without supermarkets, where:

[…] families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture responded by making $10 million in grant money available to healthful fresh food outlets such as roadside stands and farmers’ markets.

Needless to say, the most politically resonant feature of food deserts is their existence in economically disadvantaged areas, both urban and rural. Part of the backlash against food desert awareness was based on a 2009 USDA report on food access, based on 2006 research in one county of Texas. The report said:

Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles. Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).

Overall, ethnic and racial minorities have better access to supermarkets than Whites. Median distance to the nearest supermarket for non-White individuals is 0.63 miles, compared with 0.96 miles on average for Whites… Similarly, a smaller percentage of non-Whites (26.6 percent) have low access to supermarkets than do Whites (48.2 percent).

Numbers can lend themselves to many interpretations. What does it mean, “Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income”? A poor non-white family is geographically located closer to a food store than a more prosperous white family. But, for one thing, the distance to a place as the crow flies, is meaningless if it’s on the other side of a freeway with no bridge and maybe a scary underpass.

For a suburbanite with one child, driving two miles to a grocery store is no big deal. For a city dweller, catching a bus with three walking kids and a small baby is a much more ambitious project, even if the store is only one mile away. In both urban and rural environments, the complaint is not only a shortage of retail outlets offering fresh, nourishing foods, but a lack of transportation experienced by many of the people who most need stores of this kind. And this is all supposing that the “food desert” phenomenon, if indeed it exists, has any bearing on the childhood obesity epidemic. Which is not conclusively proven.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Let’s Move! Can it make kids healthier?,” LA Times, 03/20/11
Source: “USDA Spending $10 Million to Promote Farmers’ Markets in Michelle Obama’s ‘Food Deserts’,” CNSNews.com, 06/06/11
Source: “Veggies in “Healthy Food Deserts” Won’t Cure Obesity,” TownHall.com, 06/15/11
Image by eschipul (Ed Schipul), used under its Creative Commons license.

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  1. […] Schools need to do their best to bring in nourishing food and keep junk food out.3. There are food deserts throughout the country, and something needs to be done about them.4. Everybody needs more physical […]

  2. […] the major question remains: Is the food desert a real phenomenon or an imaginary construct? Who gets to write the definition? Is it really so […]

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