Two major questions are involved. The first, as been discussed extensively by Childhood Obesity News — if there are such things as food deserts, does their existence impact childhood obesity one way or another? The branching sub-questions attached to that one are mainly concerned with whose job it is to change the situation, if it needs to be changed.
But 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 difficult to buy fresh, wholesome food in inner cities, rural areas, and even suburbs? Some inquiries are not amenable to rigorous science, partly because of the enormous amount self-reporting required from participants.
One study that encouraged the debunking of the food desert theory was conducted by the (nonprofit) Public Policy Institute of California, and Dr. Helen Lee spoke to the press about it. Gina Kolata wrote for The New York Times:
For data on where children lived and went to school and how much they weighed, [Dr. Lee] used a federal study of 8,000 children. For data on the location of food establishments, she used a data set that compiled all the businesses in the nation and included their sizes and locations… Poor neighborhoods, Dr. Lee found, had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier ones, and they had more than three times as many corner stores per square mile. But they also had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.
Another researcher, Dr. Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation and lead author of another study that attracted wide attention, said that “food swamp” would be a more accurate term than “food desert.” His study depended, in part, on unconfirmed information given by 13,000 kids in California, about their own heights, weights, and eating habits. Kolata says:
Dr. Sturm found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes. He has also completed a national study of middle school students, with the same result — no consistent relationship between what the students ate and the type of food nearby. Living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat.
Around this time, writers for other publications also declared their willingness to leap onto the food-desert-debunking bandwagon. Perhaps most interestingly, Kolata’s piece inspired 416 online comments, which Childhood Obesity News will examine.
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 Dvortygirl, used under its Creative Commons license.