Everything You Know About Food Deserts Is Wrong

This whole topic is rife with puzzles, one of which Dr. Pretlow articulates here:

The food deserts idea is based on the intuitive premise that people in poorer neighborhoods have “junk food” diets because of unavailability of healthy foods in stores in poor neighborhoods.

As we have seen, this holds true to a certain extent, and not because observers feel that this is the situation, but because some economically disadvantaged people actually do not have the means to travel to stores where a healthy assortment of vegetables and fruits is available at a reasonable price. For instance, a few years back, a study showed that statewide, 59 percent of Indiana’s counties contained areas that fell under the definition of food deserts.

In Indianapolis 63 percent of the population lived within a 10-minute drive to a fast food restaurant or convenience store, while only 39 percent lived within 10 minutes of a grocery store. For car-free people, this is not exactly good news, nor is it helpful to any better-eating ambitions they might have.

Childhood Obesity News also looked into several other factors that can contribute to what has become known as the food desert phenomenon. And yet, these obstacles and shortages are not always present, so what else is going on? A young person communicated with Dr. Pretlow:

And there ARE healthy affordable foods where I live, it doesn’t mean that we buy them. There are multiple McDonald’s in every town.

It begins to look like a classic conundrum: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Dr. Pretlow asks,

Do people in poor neighborhoods have junk food diets because the stores carry only junk food, or do stores in poor neighborhoods carry only junk food because people in poor neighborhoods will buy only junk food?

One of the answers is readily apparent. While stores in deprived areas may not stock junk food exclusively, they sure do carry a lot of it. This is so evident, one public official quipped that instead of food deserts, they should be called food swamps.

Although an abundance of food may be available for purchase, most of it is, for all practical purposes, worthless. But on the legendary “third hand,” as Dr. Pretlow’s young correspondent pointed out, the mere presence of good food does not mean people will take it home.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Associate Editor at Reasonwrote,

The problem was that these items just didn’t sell. You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale there.

The USDA just admitted as much, with a new report on food deserts… Highlights from the article note that proximity to supermarkets “has a limited impact on food choices” and “household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity.”

As for resources, that is a sticky question. While it may be true that poor people cannot afford to buy good food on a consistent basis, they can certainly afford to not buy unhealthy food. Anyone at all can afford to not purchase gooseberry/lamb flavored potato chips, triple-decker cupcakes, or chocolate-covered bacon.

It can easily be argued that even with a limited budget, it is probably better to go for quality whenever possible. Even chain supermarkets now have organic sections in their vegetable departments. Grass-fed beef is expensive, but maybe a person only needs to eat one burger, rather than two. Some nutritionists have made a powerful case for the idea of eating less, but better.

The thing is, higher-quality food satisfies the need for all the various nutrients, so that hunger does not return so soon or so intensely. When people eat and eat and eat, it’s often because not a single vitamin or mineral has entered their systems. The body knows it’s all crap and garbage, and insists on being fed more, on the off-chance that eventually a vitamin or mineral might show up.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Indiana’s ‘Food Swamps’ Contributing To Childhood Obesity,” WFYI.org, 05/12/16
Source: “Five Years and $500 Million Later, USDA Admits That ‘Food Deserts’ Don’t Matter,” Reason.com, 06/13/16
Photo credit: Found Animals Foundation on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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