The “Food Desert” Theory Does Not Reflect Reality

Inner-city convenience store responding to what local demand.

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)

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25 responses to “The “Food Desert” Theory Does Not Reflect Reality

  1. This was always an extremely dubious theory. Lots of stores exist in poor neighborhoods. If there was a sufficient demand for supermarket food at supermarket prices there would be supermarkets. The rules of economics apply just as much in the inner city as in leafy suburbs or the wide open countryside.

  2. It’s quite ludicrous in a day and time when transportation is universally available and FOOD Banks funnel surplus produce, bread and other food from Grocery stores to local food pantries.

    If a community does not have a local food pantry – then bad on them.

    Last time I checked no one starves in this country and rich folks are just as fat and die just as much from obesity as the poor…

    so this issue .. like others has a “left” and a “right” perspective to it and like other issues – both are fails. Yes food desserts are largely a myth and yes.. the “poor” do have a “bad food culture” – as do the folks higher up on the economic ladder who no doubt are a rich source of dollars for the medical folks to “help” them with their “culture” problem…

    GEEZE .. everything these days has to be a partisan push-pull!

  3. As someone who lived in an urban food desert in the 1990’s, I raised the issue with those studying how to deal with the large and poor inner city population. I did not purchase the paper cited here, but I do question the study’s findings as limited by the study design. The authors do state … “income-related demand differences are partially explained by education, nutrition knowledge, and regional preferences,” a statement that should also include ‘availability’ as a part of what they call ‘income related demand differences’.

    The fact is there ARE food deserts and the only stores readily available to the poor in those areas are old-fashioned ‘corner’ stores or fast food outlets. Corner stores carry a limited range of food, much of it nutritionally lacking, and much more expensive than food at a large supermarket. Studies in Philadelphia showed an unhealthy reliance on fast food for the ‘food desert’s’ children, also relatively expensive. And transportation matters, especially if it allows you to take advantage of buying in quantity, usually a lot cheaper, but hard to drag home on a bus. Finally, ignorance about nutrition can be remedied, starting in the medical community, but diet itself cannot be remedied without the availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

    How about those athletic dietitians at Virginia Tech moving into the college dining hall and providing the rest of the students with ‘good’ food too? Maybe they could educate their tastes as well as their knowledge.

    • The question isn’t whether there are food deserts, the question is why. Nobody will build a supermarket in an area where people won’t buy the products being sold. I personally agree with Jim Bacon’s belief that a breakdown in the family structure due to teenage pregnancy, single parent or no parent “families”, etc is at the heart of many maladies. This is as true in poor rural areas as poor urban areas. This family breakdown manifests itself in a lack of personal responsibility on the part of those who are raised in such an environment. Immediate gratification trumps long term gain for too high a percentage of the population. A double quarter pounder now beats a grilled chicken breast with broccoli in an hour – even if the person eating is obese and spending his or her last dime at Burger King.

      Does this happen to affluent people in affluent areas? Sure. But not at the same rate. There is absolutely a correlation between economic means and lifestyle choices. You can look at smoking, exercise, obesity, etc. Of course, the people living in affluent areas generally pay for their health insurance, etc rather than wanting other people’s money.

      The left wants to spend more money, spend more money. I don’t think that will do a damn thing since the root cause of the lack of personal responsibility is the breakdown of the family structure and no money will fix that. I see a three pronged answer:

      1. Role models who come up from impoverished areas need to be real role models. For every Larry Fitzgerald (future Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Cardinals and NFL Man of the Year) there are two other pros who either have 4 kids with three different women or can’t seem to stop hitting their girlfriends.

      2. Accountability. A woman who takes drugs while she is pregnant and delivers an addicted baby is guilty of child abuse. The child needs to be taken away and the Mom needs to go to trial and then off to jail or probation. Fathers who don’t pay their child support need to be locked up.

      3. Education. As much as I disagreed with the Obama Administration I always thought Michelle’s efforts to mandate nutritional school meals was right on the mark. Yes, the kids hated it. Of course they hated it. They’re kids. They’d eat ice cream for breakfast if they could. But a kid who eats enough carrots will eventually start to like carrots. Growing up my Mom refused to buy anything other than skim milk. Whole milk tastes funny to me. I don’t like it. Healthy habits last.

    • All good points. But I also rank perceived personal safety up there. No way I’m going into some of these neighborhoods to try an new, innovative restaurant with good reviews, or go shopping there and carry my bags back to a car parked a ways away.

  4. Agree. Transportation is a major issue for many. I frequent an urban Kroger and see its shopping carts far and wide, indicating people are pushing them home or close to home, and I see people walking many, many blocks away with shopping bags. Clearly they cannot be buying in bulk. No frozen turkeys or heads of cauliflower. And I was there buying gas today paying 15 cents more per gallon than the price I saw at the Kroger out on Staples Mill. And before you say – an urban Kroger! See, no food desert! — I’m sure it is there mainly because of VCU apartment dwellers and the Fan, not exactly low income neighborhoods.

    Larry’s point about lousy nutritional habits being common across demographics is dead on. Sometimes I think Bacon suffers a bit of upper middle class guilt and wants us all to understand that the poor have no one to blame but themselves. (Kidding Jim, well partly…) Me, I tend to think otherwise.

    I get Rippert’s point too but it is probably the laws of economics that make it a poor investment to put a major supermarket in some of those neighborhoods – and I’m fine with local governments easing tax or land use rules or finding other ways to encourage them to give it a try.

    • Almost nobody who lives in Manhattan owns a car. I lived there for 2 years and never once operated a motor vehicle in the city. My studio apartment had a galley kitchen just slightly bigger than a standard sized coffin. I bought healthy foods from fruit stands and little grocery corner stores. Hell, I came back to DC and ran the Marine Corps Marathon both years I lived there. Oranges were one of my favorites. I figured out one day that I was paying about $1 per orange. 7 oranges, 7 apples and 7 blueberry yogurts made for a week of breakfasts. Oh, and some instant coffee. Cost about $3.50 and took about 10 minutes. Cheaper, faster and far better tasting than a Big Breakfast from McDonald’s with pancakes swimming in syrup and some type of fried potato cake euphemistically called a “hash brown”.

      They sell oranges in Manhattan because people in Manhattan demand oranges. And 3 – 4 small food shopping trips a week really doesn’t take any longer than one big shopping trip – especially when you’re walking by the same grocery on the way home from work every day anyway.

      One spending program I’d support is giving fruit away in schools. If you eat an orange and an apple every morning a bowl of Cocoa Puffs just doesn’t seem that appealing.

  5. I just am not moved by the imagery of a poor starving kid crawling through the desert yearning for a measly cumquat to save his life … too much drama…

    Food Banks pick up produce, bread and even dairy and often distribute it for free.

    All you need is one Van and a volunteer and a place in the community to hand it out. I think those who are concerned about food desserts need to think along those lines.

    DJ is right – if there is demand for something.. chances are it shows up . Works for drugs and cigarettes and lottery tickets!

    You don’t need a big box grocery store .. fruits stands .. fruit markets are found in a lot of urban areas..

    the absence of suburban style grocery store does not mean other types of markets can’t be there.. and in most urban areas – including where the rich live – there are local produce markets – if there is demand for the product.

    Once we slid over into a mindset where folks who live outside the food dessert somehow deciding to help folks with the “wrong” culture .. “learn” to eat healthy… well it develops a paternalistic odor… and when someone says it’s the govt that should fix it.. it absolutely reeks!

    I still think the most effective way to deal with this is to help that community gin up their own pantry… so that people in the community value it and are part of it. Build a non-profit produce market… yourself.. for your own community… don’t expect Kroger to do it or the Govt to do it…

    • Oh hell yes – if something is in demand somebody will sell it. There are lots of entrepreneurs in the inner cities and rural America. I like the guys who sell loosies. They take packs of cigarettes, empty the cigarettes and then sell the cigarettes one at a time to people who can’t or don’t want to buy a whole pack. Buy a 20 cigarette pack for $3.00 and sell them for $.20 apiece. Pocket a buck per pack. Most places made this practice illegal. Really? They’re going to fine a guy in the inner city for selling loosies? They should give him an award for good business thinking and hustle.

  6. One point that has been missed in this discussion is that many residents in these neighborhoods use SNAP (food stamps). This is a limited allocation per month so most recipients buy as many calories as they can before the monthly benefits run out. The cheap, calorie dense foods are all in the middle isles of the grocery stores, or take up most of the shelf space in convenience stores, which are the primary source of food in a “food desert”.

    These industrially-made food-like carriers of calories are either made from corn (including high-fructose corn syrup) or soy-based materials. These two grains are the most highly subsidized crops in the U.S. The bulk of the subsidies (80-85%) go to just a few of the farmers (about 10% or so). Many of the “farmers” that receive these subsidies live in Manhattan.

    The scientists at the industrial food companies have learned how to engineer “craving” into the product using a cocktail of chemicals added during processing. Many of the residents in a food desert live a stressful life, with little or no income, many health challenges, limited education, lack of easy transportation, etc. Even the most affluent will seek out “comfort food” when under stress. Look at the White House floating in Big Macs.

    We have to interrupt this cycle. The industrialization of food has lowered food costs as a percentage of our income, but increases in health-care costs from the Standard American Diet (SAD) has more than made up the difference.

    I am on the board of a group that is establishing a farm on the grounds of our regional hospital. We are setting up a Food Farmacy program where primary care physicians will write healthy food prescriptions for patients with diabetes or pre-diabetic symptoms. Studies have shown that a proper diet can halt and reverse symptoms within just a few weeks.

    Our longer term aim is to establish urban neighborhood farms and local food preparation so people in challenged neighborhoods can earn a living farming and feeding their neighbors in ways that keeps them all out of the hospital.

    Our hospital is a non-profit and obligated to provide care. Their projections for the cost of caring for under- and un-insured patients is staggering. We think it’s worth doing something locally, rather than waiting on Richmond or Washington to come up with a solution.

    We will hit bumps in the road, but will learn by doing. The Doc’s are excited about this project and so are our neighbors. We think we can take a bite out of some of the problems that everyone else is just shaking their heads about.

    • Tom – thanks for sharing about your efforts.. We have a regional hospital that has sponsored a farmers market.. but everyone has to travel from where they live to that farmers market. But that’s not dealing with the “food dessert” issue …. perhaps the “industrialization”.. not sure what farming techniques the providers are using..

      but… in terms of “industrialization”.. does that really affect certain segments of our society or is it more likely across the board?

      Our Food Bank distributes “staples”… in addition to the “free” produce and bread (both of which are probably “industrial”).. The staples are canned and boxed… things like soup, tomato sauce, canned meat, tuna, canned fruit, pasta and cereal… ironically some of it has things like reduced-salt, or gluten-free or organic on it these days but it is not segregated.. it’s small random amount compared to the bulk of what is distributed.

      Finally .. have you heard of “agrihoods” or places like this: ” Olivette is a 346-acre planned community and historic farm, located along the French Broad River, just 6.7 miles from downtown Asheville.

      An agrihood community is an alternative to the traditional neighborhood model, centering the community around a working farm. Olivette is home to a biodiverse vegetable, fruit and flower farm.”

    • Tom:

      You make a lot of points in your post.

      I question the calories – cost argument. An average adult needs about 1,800 kCal per day to stay well nourished and healthy. That’s not a high bar to cross, even on a limited budget.

      The industrialized fast food industry is a disaster. A double Whopper with cheese and bacon has 1,1oo+ calories. A Burger King vanilla shake adds another 665 kCal and a stunning 76 gm of carbohydrates. A side order of fries and lunch is more calories than many people should ingest in a day. Beyond that, there is a lot of added sugar. The burger has 52 gm of carbohydrates. You and I would have a hard time making a double cheeseburger with bacon come out to 52 gm of carbs. Hamburger patties have no carbs, cheese has virtually no carbs and bacon has virtually no carbs. A wonder bread bun has 24 gm of carb. Thus, we have a double bacon cheese burger with less than half of the carbs in Burger King’s offering. Where the hell can we find another 28 gm of carbs? A tablespoon of Heinz ketchup gives us 10. Mustard has effectively no carbs. We need to add a bit more than 4 teaspoons of sugar to our burger to get to the BK carb count.

      People under stress do eat too much comfort food but, statistically speaking, obesity is correlated to income level and it’s the low income obese Americans who want me to pay for their health care. I want them to try harder to stay healthy.

      Good luck with the hospital / farm program. Hopefully you’ll grow some collard greens. I do love collard greens. I use diced onions and diced ham and turn the greens from a side dish into a meal. I’ll have to figure out what a serving of DJ’s Collard greens costs and its nutritional profile. If I were looking to add calories to my diet (which I am not) I’m pretty sure that adding rice to my dish would very economically accomplish that goal.

  7. “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?”

    I would suggest neither of the above.

    I suggest that the missing primary cause of the problem here is the collapse of the family among lower and middle income groups in this country.

    Without a family, everyone runs wild. Food without a family is all catch as catch can, eating on the run, all grabbed and gobbled up quick – hence the dramatic rise of junk food, Quick Food, Drive Ins, and Drive-Thought. Crap food is what Men without women eat, Kids without a family eat, single moms and single working women eat. And that too goes along with all the drugs.

  8. the ‘collapse of the family” is exactly why there is a free and reduce lunch program in schools and in many that now extends to breakfast because kids who come to school hungry are not going to concentrate and learn.

    About half of all marriages fail – outside of the poverty neighborhoods and beyond that many intact-marriage households – both work and traditional everyone-at-the-table family means are probably not as frequent either.

    In other words – lifestyles are different now also.

    but in poverty neighborhoods where there actually is only one parent who may or may not work .. the “collapse” is real and perhaps the way we have treated those in poverty who get involved in drugs plays some role when many who do that – to try to make a living – get caught and sent off to prison leaving mom and the kids even more on their own – not that in a lot of cases – Dad was/is more a biological one than a family one…

    On theses issues – I always try to have some context.. is this a USA-only problem? Does Mexico and Canada also have the “collapse” problem?

    Central America, Australia , Japan… Malaysia (which is the 4th largest country on earth by population). India.. Europe?.???

    One way we DO differ is that we have more people in prison than all these other countries and the vast majority of them are there for drugs…

    Do people without economic hope use drugs? Is that something we see not only in our urban areas but now in the rural areas now? Will we start putting opioid users in jail the same way we have been doing crack cocaine users in the urban areas?

    Are unemployed folks with little or no hope of employment – urban AND rural already suffering “collapse of family” issues even before drugs and prison?

    • There are degrees of family collapse. A couple married for 10 years has 2 children. They get divorced and both parents remain involved with the children and financially contribute to their support. Contrast that with a never-married Mom who has two kids by two different Dads, neither of which has been seen for years. Mom tries to make it work but eventually gives up and the kids go live with Grandma who has a small pension and Social Security. Grandma is getting old and can’t keep up with the kids. So, the kids learn it’s not too hard to fool Grandma and they more or less raise themselves.

      It seems to me there’s a big difference between the first situation and the second.

      • You make a very important distinction. I speak from experience, as someone who got divorced after seven years of marriage but continued to support my two children from that marriage and stay very involved in their lives. There’s a world of difference between what my children experienced and what too many children from poor families experience. Having a marriage certificate is not the key — having a father committed to the upbringing and welfare of his children is the key.

  9. I’d agree there is a difference… when the biological Dad ends up not able to be a family member because of involvement with drugs as well as entitlement rules that make it near impossible for him to be in the home with mom and kids without affecting their ability to qualify for help.

    in terms of having kids without fathers.. it’s an issue in families of higher income also where daughter with child lives with mom/dad …who do have the financial resources to keep them there whereas daughters/kid without economically secure parents do so .. but in more chaotic circumstances with Grandmom herself is without husband and also on welfare…

    In other words – it’s a continuing cycle… with a primary difference being the economic circumstances… Grandparents cannot be effective surrogate parents if the grandparents themselves are single parents in poverty and reliant on welfare.

    so.. yes.. I was wrong to draw an inference between broken families of different economic circumstances.. there are stark differences in how families operate when economically sufficient and not.

    so. .. here’s a question… would it be better if both Mom and Dad – unemployed and in need of welfare… be able to cohabit in the same house and be parents of their kids or is it better to basically not have Dad there and either in prison or just existing separately because entitlements will be affected if he tries to stay with Mom and kids?

  10. It seems as though some believe the renaissance for US core urban areas (i.e. cities) is coming to an end. This could be a dent not only in the tax bases of those cities but in Jim Bacon’s theories of human development as well….

    http://time.com/5054046/millennials-cities/

  11. and maybe to get us back to the concept of food desert…

    here’s a pretty good interactive USDA mapping tool that allows zooming in to State, region and even city levels..

    static map looks like this:

    but if you search GOOGLE: ” Food Desert Locator – USDA Food and Nutrition Service” you’ll get the interactive map …. then…

    zoom into Richmond.. but on the way – also look at how much of Rural Virginia is also designated that way.

    • I assume it’s no surprise that the density of supermarkets is positively correlated to the density of population (except in urban food deserts apparently). Therefore, the fact that a lot of people in rural Virginia live more than a mile from a supermarket should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that so many people live in rural Virginia without having a car. What’s the plan for those folks? Can’t get to employment, can’t get to food, can’t get to health care (assuming it’s available). Sounds pretty hopeless and unsolvable. Maybe time to relocate where there are jobs and you might not need a car?

  12. I’m more than a skeptic of the “no car” in rural areas thing…

    we do volunteer for a pantry that serves a rural area and many of those folks do have cars though they are well past their prime… in looks and performance.

    Rural areas without a car means no means to get medical care either.. and that does not jive with this map which does indicate accessing medical care:

  13. Well, as far as food deserts in the vicinity of the White House are concerned, I endorse Tom’s comment: “Even the most affluent will seek out “comfort food” when under stress. Look at the White House floating in Big Macs. We have to interrupt this cycle.”

    Congress has accomplished all it’s going to accomplish without regular order; the rest is executive action and — lots of noise. Indeed, we have to interrupt this cycle! For 2018, I’m thinking of all the ways . . . .

    • well yup.. you can find McDonalds anywhere and everywhere regardless of whether a grocery store is nearby.

      We see that especially when going through small towns where there are no grocery stores.. but often a fast food place and the obligatory gas and go..

      Many of these places .. USED to have grocery stores…. but no more.

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