A large social-scientific literature has documented that low-income neighborhoods are far more likely than affluent neighborhoods to be “food deserts,” that is to have low access to healthy food. The big question is why. Does the food-desert phenomenon reflect institutional racism, in which corporate grocery-store chains are unwilling to serve neighborhoods dominated by poor minorities? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people just aren’t interested in eating what a patronizing intellectual class deems best for them?
A new study argues that food deserts are primarily a demand-side phenomenon: They exist because poor people have different tastes in food and place less value on nutrition.
“Using a structural demand model, we find that exposing low-income households to the same food availability and prices experienced by high-income households would reduce nutritional inequality by only 9%, while the remaining 91% is driven by differences in demand,” report the authors of, “The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States.”
The authors draw upon a rich combination of datasets, including a 60,000-household panel survey of grocery purchases, a 35,000-store panel of sales data that covers 40% of all grocery purchases nationally, and data on the entry dates and locations of 1,914 new supermarkets from national grocery chains along with data on real establishments in each zip code.
While healthy food costs more per calorie than unhealthy food, the authors write, the difference is attributable almost entirely to the cost of fresh produce. In food categories other than fresh produce, health food is actually about 8% less expensive. Therefore, they conclude, price is not the major obstacle to the eating of healthier food.
Also, the “food desert” effect is exaggerated. “Americans travel a long way for shopping, so even households who live in ‘food deserts’ with no supermarkets get most of their groceries from supermarkets. ” Households that move from food deserts to non-food deserts do not significantly alter their eating patterns.
Therefore, the authors conclude, the strategy of coaxing supermarkets to set up shop in food deserts will have only a nominal effect on household nutrition. The most important variable they identified in influencing the consumption of healthy vs. unhealthy food is the level of education. They suggest that improving public health education would have a more positive impact than worrying about the geographic distribution of grocery stores.
Bacon’s bottom line: Food deserts are one more example of people with good intentions mis-identifying a problem and squandering resources on solutions that don’t work. The food-desert theory appeals to liberals and progressives because it reinforces their conviction that a market failure exists for food, which only government intervention can remedy. Observing that poor people have different tastes in food, I have long inveighed against this idea. For the most part, the free market provides poor people exactly what they want to eat. If you wish for poor people to change their nutrition, you need to change their taste infood. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time and money.
(Hat tip: John Butcher)