Lifestyle & Belief

'Food deserts' may not be as deserted as we think, new studies show


Two new studies suggest that obesity is not necessarily linked to the lack of grocery stores or healthy food options being in close proximity to neighborhoods.


Chris Hondros

LOS ANGELES — Food deserts, the term used to describe poor, urban neighborhoods thought to be devoid of healthy food options, may not be as deserted as we think, according to new research reported by the New York Times

Two new studies have challenged the common perception of food activists that lower-class urban areas have less access to fruits and vegetables and thus higher obesity rates. 

One study, from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, found that poor neighborhoods had nearly twice the amount of convenience stores and fast food restaurants as affluent areas, but also had access to more large supermarkets and chain grocery stores per square mile than their wealthier counterparts, Slate reported

“It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores,” Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the Times. “But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking.”

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The other study, by the Santa-Monica-based RAND Corporation, focused on child obesity based on proximity to healthy and unhealthy food choices. The researchers, who studied over 13,000 Californian children aged 5 to 17, found that students’ weight and the types of food they ate were unaffected by the supermarkets or restaurants around them, according to Slate. 

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” Roland Sturm, the lead author of the RAND Corporation study, told the Times. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert." 

Adam Drewnowski, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies the relationship between where people live and where they shop for food, told the Washington Post that having grocery stores close by doesn't necessarily safeguard against obesity.

“They have salads and they have apples,” Drewnowski said. “You can’t go at them saying they only have french fries and salted foods. So, now what?”

First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a stand against US child obesity rates with her program Let's Move, and eliminating food deserts is a central element of her campaign. Many food activists also advocate for bringing fresh local produce into poorer neighborhoods. 

However, the Times' article suggests that there is more to healthy eating than just having healthy food available. 

"I’m not one to argue with bringing more fresh food to impoverished neighborhoods," wrote SmartPlanet blogger Audrey Quinn. "But until public health campaigns bring greater focus to our overall relationship with food and respect for our bodies, those new organic produce stands are going to primarily benefit people already converted to healthful eating." 

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As the American Council on Science and Health’s Dr. Ruth Kava commented, “These studies demonstrate that the issue of obesity is more complicated than just a question of where you live, how much you earn, and how many McDonald’s are in your neighborhood.”