Childhood Obesity and Food Desert Backlash, Part 1

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Last time, Childhood Obesity News looked at the concept of the food desert, as publicized by Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move! program. Many critics were and are full of scorn for the very idea. Diane Medved wrote a particularly stern essay, “Veggies in ‘Healthy Food Deserts’ Won’t Cure Obesity,” that established her credentials as a food desert debunker.

In Medved’s cosmology, those who worry about food deserts are hand-wringing worrywarts whose strongest desire is to micromanage the lives of others. Why are political sensibilities irritated by what some are fond of calling the “nanny state”? The writer says:

There’s an assumption that people in low-income areas crave fresh fruits and vegetables, but that a nefarious capitalistic force thwarts their innate healthy-food proclivities.

Another position held by some is, food desert awareness presupposes that franchise supermarkets are the only way people can get food. But in any impoverished neighborhood, there is no shortage of residents with the entrepreneurial spirit. A single energetic individual with a van could bring in enough fresh produce to make it worth her/his while. If people in an area want fresh food, surely someone will step up and supply the demand.

In this worldview, the best action a government can take is none. Just leave people alone, stay out of the way, and don’t hassle them about vending permits or zoning laws, or any of the other methods by which a city can thwart free enterprise.

This same line of thinking disparages the tendency of the government, the academic establishment, and the charitable foundations to attack any problem by, in Medved’s phrase, “throwing money at it.” She says:

Pres. Obama’s stimulus package […] has awarded thirty communities $230 million in grants to prevent childhood obesity. Local United Way offices have funded ‘healthy corner store initiatives,’ […] In addition, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, funded nine sites nationally, including $500,000 to Seattle’s King County. In Pennsylvania, $30 million of state grants over three years was triple-matched by $90 million more in grants and loans from The Food Trust, used for 78 grocery outlets in poor neighborhoods.

What’s not to like? Plenty, apparently. Medved goes on to make a case that throwing money at the fat-causing behaviors is futile, and offers her own state, Washington, as an example of how the more than $15 million in stimulus funds made no difference. And she doesn’t understand the logic of the food-stamp argument. Supposedly, the poor cannot buy wholesome food, partly because many stores don’t take food stamps. Then how, she wonders, do they manage to buy junk food?

Medved interviews a neighborhood merchant, Bhim Singh, whose store always sold vegetables with a longer shelf-life such as onions and potatoes. In 2009, he got a new refrigerator and began to stock a greater variety of fresh produce. But the demand wasn’t there, and the writer quotes him as saying:

We would spend $200 on vegetables and make only $10.

If the U.S. Department of Agriculture did indeed spend close to $700 million in one year to teach nutrition in schools, perhaps there is too much throwing of money — and the witnesses to that are the kids who write in to Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website, declaring that they are fed up with healthy-eating propaganda, which doesn’t do a thing for them. All these expensive efforts Medved acknowledges as valiant but considers pointless, saying:

We just don’t know if all the spending and talking and teaching and fruit-and-veggie-touting is making a difference… Obesity in children — and adults — is a far more complex phenomenon than well-meaning agencies and pundits are willing to admit. And because its causes are not yet understood, creating innumerable boards and bureaucracies to eradicate it (and make food deserts bloom) have failed… They’re desperately searching for do-able solutions to a problem whose cause has still to be defined, and which has foiled all efforts to solve.

Childhood Obesity News begs to differ. The mystery has been solved. The root cause is food addiction. As Dr. Pretlow says:

Publicizing that childhood obesity is not caused by nutritional ignorance or sedentary activity, but by an addictive dependence not unlike to cigarettes, alcohol, or even drugs, is the first step in curbing epidemic childhood obesity.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Veggies in “Healthy Food Deserts” Won’t Cure Obesity,”, 06/15/11
Image by U.S.Department of Agriculture, used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. It is true that childhood obesity is a far more complex problem than many people would argue. One campaign just cannot solve it all. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Nutrition Centre recently started a childhood obesity awareness campaign which I liked, because it tries to make parents and policy makers aware of the huge impact of the food environment of children:


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