“Food Deserts” not the Obesity Culprit

Among the food-related bogeymen that activists blame for America’s bulging waistlines is the so-called “food desert,” an urban or rural area that has a shortage of supermarkets. At first blush, it might seem like living in one of these “deserts” would to reduce a person’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables. However, there’s little evidence that these conditions are actually preventing people from finding nutritious foods if they want them. Regardless, activists ask for “supermarket subsidies” and restaurant zoning prohibitions. But there’s now more evidence that “food deserts” aren’t causing America’s kids to get fat.

Researchers from the RAND Corporation investigated whether the closeness of various types of food sellers to schools and homes of California children was associated with purchases of various foods. Sure enough, the researchers found no robust correlations. The research team speculated that the absence of a relationship might have something to do with how even the food-desert dweller gets around. As Roland Sturm, an economist who co-authored the study, told The Washington Post:

Maybe the whole idea that what is 400 meters away is no longer relevant when people drive everywhere. In California, we see about 97 percent have access to motorized transportation. Where they get their food could have little to do with what’s directly in their neighborhood.

Incidentally, that “motorized transportation” might have as much to do with why Americans are bigger than they used to be as any changes in food intake. A USDA study also found that over 90 percent of households in “food deserts” have access to at least one car.

The fact that so many people can get to just about anywhere with ease shows why “supermarket subsidies” and zoning ordinances are no solution to obesity. With the evidence piling up that the presence of restaurants isn’t preventing people from having healthy food if they want it, will the government just leave consumers alone?

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