USDA: People Make the Choice to Eat Unhealthy Food
Last week, I examined how obesity among low-income households cannot be explained by simply claiming that low-income people don't have access to healthy food. It is claimed that supermarkets and other places that sell food are too far away from low-income neighborhoods for households to access them. It is assumed that low-income people will eat fast food instead. This is known as the "food desert" concept in which some places are devoid of food choices.
In that article I quoted sources which concluded that there is not actually compelling evidence that low-income neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores than other neighborhoods.
Now, it appears that the USDA (as of May 2016) has recently caught up with a multitude of other sources and found that "the effect of food store access on dietary quality may be limited" and in many cases, is "negligible." When the USDA report says "limited" they mean very limited. The study concluded that when food choices are less constrained (i.e., when low-income shoppers experience an increase in choices for food stores) "low-access consumers purchased 0.42 percent more fruits, 0.55 percent more vegetables, 0.61 percent more low-fat milk products, and 0.33 percent less nondiet drinks."
The study did find, not surprisingly, that people will travel further to stores they believe to offer lower-prices. But, this further travel did not lead to significantly improved dietary habits. Indeed, two recent studies showed that putting a new grocery store in the neighborhood did nothing to improve diets:
In a 2015 study, researchers at the Rand Corporation and at collaborating universities interviewed households in a Pittsburgh neighborhood before and after a supermarket opened in 2013 and compared their food purchases and dietary intake with those of households in a Pittsburgh neighborhood similar in demographics and income but without a new store. Residents in the neighborhood with the new store consumed fewer calories overall, less added sugars, and fewer calories from solid fats, alcohol, and added sugars than residents in the neighborhood without a new store.
However, the changes were not associated with regular use of the new store—residents who regularly used the new store had similar diets as residents who did not. The study also found that fruit and vegetable consumption decreased slightly in both neighborhoods.
A similar study of two neighborhoods in Philadelphia—one where a new supermarket opened in 2009 and a similar neighborhood without a new store—was published in 2014 by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Penn State University. Residents’ perceptions of food accessibility in the neighborhood with the new store improved relative to the control neighborhood, but consumption of fruits and vegetables did not improve.
By the end of the study, the USDA concluded: "These results suggest that improving access to healthful foods by itself will likely not have a major impact on consumer diets or generate major reductions in diet-related disease."
Of course, there may be numerous characteristics common among low-income households that increase one's risk of obesity. Knowledge about nutrition, for example, is likely a real factor. However, even with this, we cannot simply blame low-income status. After all, immigrants — many of whom are very low-income — tend to eat healthier than the native population.
It's time to get rid of the "food desert" argument.
Indeed, if a "food desert" is defined as a place where low-income houses are unable to physically access presumably far-away grocery stores, then we're left doubting whether or not food deserts exist at all. As the USDA report admits:
The FoodAPS data revealed that about 9 of 10 households in the 2012-13 survey usually shopped for groceries at a supermarket or supercenter, regardless of their participation in food and nutrition assistance programs or their food security status. Roughly 90 percent of households that participate in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) did their primary grocery shopping in a supermarket or supercenter.
FoodAPS data also show that households often bypass the nearest supermarket to obtain groceries. The average straight-line distance to the nearest supermarket was 2.1 miles, but households traveled an average of 3.8 miles to get to the store in which they do their usual shopping. This behavior was consistent across transportations modes; even those who walk, bike, or take public transit traveled, on average, farther than the distance to the nearest supermarket to do their primary food shopping. This study suggests that most U.S. households are not limited by the food stores in their own neighborhoods.