Childhood Obesity and Food Desert Backlash, Part 4

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Who would have guessed there would be so much to discover about food deserts? And so much to disagree about. Especially when the term only came into public consciousness in relatively recent years. Americans are now so familiar with it because of First Lady Michelle Obama’s project, Let’s Move! Designed as a nationwide effort to put the brakes on the childhood obesity, the initiative was four-pronged.

One operating premise was that parents needed to be educated and empowered to put their knowledge into action. Schools were a mess, with some horrific examples of unhealthful food both in free lunch programs for the economically disadvantaged, and purchasable cafeteria meals and vending machines. Nobody was getting enough exercise. And in large areas of America, both urban and rural, which were christened food deserts, fresh produce and other nutritious foods were virtually unobtainable.

That supposition has caused a lot of debate, and one of the central pieces of journalism about it was an article by Gina Kolata, published in The New York Times earlier this year. It turned out to be quite an attention-getter, as measured by the number of reader comments. Of course, there were the usual remarks about personal responsibility and the exercise of freedom of choice. The scoffers said things like:

It’s about being lazy about food prep, plain and simple. Whether you’re dragging home fresh fruit or processed food, you still have to drag it home. It’s not like if you’re buying a bunch of frozen pizzas that you don’t have to carry them. It’s what happens after you get home that tells the tale.

But speaking for the underserved, one commenter wrote:

Poverty isn’t about having chances or choices in life. It’s about living with severe limitations when it comes to choices, opportunities, and that applies to food as well.

As Childhood Obesity News mentioned yesterday, some research has indicated that, technically, there are actually more food outlets in poor neighborhoods, relative to the population numbers, and they are closer. But that’s not the whole picture. It doesn’t matter that there is a store on every corner if the food choices are limited to sugar and chemicals.

And individual family circumstances matter a lot. Kolata’s piece drew several “I’ve been there” type replies, including this one:

I’ve lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for 12 years now. For the first several years, the only regular supermarkets were at least a 10-minute walk away, which isn’t that long, but feels like it when you’re carrying 40 pounds of groceries on your shoulders, or banging a cart up and down curbs. Never mind getting up the stairs to an apartment… On top of that, the produce was expensive and not very good quality.

A “Concerned Citizen” wrote:

My son lives in the most rural part of Southern Ohio, and there is ONE supermarket — horrible and dirty — 25 miles EACH WAY from his house. Some poor families there (not him) do not own a car. There is NO bus service. The only places to buy food closer in are gas stations and ‘quickie marts’.

A lot of people don’t own cars or are unable to drive. How are the disabled and the elderly supposed to manage feeding themselves? What if the temperature is 104 degrees, or if there is a blizzard? The underemployed and the unemployed are not well equipped to deal with these eventualities, when the procuring of groceries is on the to-do list. Another person with a degree from the school of life remarked:

Produce and fresh foods require cooking, and cooking requires, among other things: a working gas stove, clean pots and pans, a working knowledge of food preparation, plates, and economic/time incentive (a quick, large and cheap meal being consumed and finished by multiple family members at once is ideal.) These things don’t sound like barriers to most readers of the NYT but they are for many, many working Americans.

If you perceive, as Dr. Pretlow does, that the major cause of the obesity epidemic is food addiction, the difference in the quality of the neighborhood food sources becomes obvious. In a prosperous neighborhood, a shopper can get cupcakes or fresh broccoli. The person might still choose the cupcakes, although an increasing number of eaters with raised awareness will go for the broccoli instead. But in a shabby neighborhood, no matter how high the shoppers’ consciousness of nutritional goodness might be, the cupcakes are so much easier to get than the broccoli.

In other words, the pseudo-foods, the ones that are much more likely to become an addict’s “problem foods,” are more widely available. Anyone with an eating disorder or headed in that direction faces proportionally more temptation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity,” The New York Times, 04/18/12
Image by vis-a-v, used under its Creative Commons license.


  1. […] Childhood Obesity News looked at some of the pros and cons of the “food desert” doctrine, one of the bases of the Let’s Move! program sponsored by presidential wife Michelle […]

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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