It's Not the Food We Can't Get. It's the Food We Can.
Jane Black takes note of an interesting new study (crummy graphs though. Sigh.) out of the USDA looking at the question of so-called "food deserts" -- areas barren of supermarkets or other ways of accessing fresh and healthful food. The takeaway, Jane says, is that worrying about food deserts gets it backward. There's very little evidence connecting access to fresh food and lower body mass indexes. Indeed, only 2.2 percent of Americans live a mile or more from a supermarket and don't have access to a care.
The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores. As the USDA puts it, "Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity." The concentration of the obesity crisis in high-poverty areas thus brings us back to a pretty well-accepted hypothesis: The problem is with low-income areas where the cheap food is the bad food.
It's really hard to conceive of a trickier public policy problem than this one. You can solve the problem of people being unable to choose an apple and they still won't choose an apple. People like crap food. It's convenient. Brilliant, highly paid scientists have spent millions of dollars precisely calibrating it to the modern palette. Innovative, award-winning advertisers have spent billions of dollars making us want it. And it's cheap.
You can ask, of course, why it's a public policy problem. And the answer, in short, is that we're not willing to let diabetics die in the streets. And if that's the case, then it's a public policy program, because a world in which 25 percent of Americans are chronically ill by middle-age is a world in which we can kiss our low tax rates goodbye. I'm increasingly coming to the position -- a position held by Tom Philpott and others -- that at some point, public money is going to have to make healthy food cheaper. People instinctively rebel against that idea, but is it really so much better to pay for the consequences of unhealthful food later?
But I'm not sure that that would be nearly enough. Actually, allow me to rephrase. I'm absolutely sure that wouldn't be enough. I'm not sure, at this point, there are answers. Maybe gastric bypass surgeries will become really cheap.
Photo used under a CC license from Flickr user Christian Cable.