Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Veggies in "Healthy Food Deserts" Won't Cure Obesity

Hand-wringers in universities and government care-for-you offices have rearranged urban geography to stop the obes-ifying of America's children--by deeming certain neighborhoods "healthy food deserts." That's deserts, like the Sahara, not desserts, like what kids are actually eating.

They say that communities lacking large supermarkets, but boasting a plethora of convenience and corner stores, prevent residents from consuming the veggies and fruits that would keep them svelte.  Time and cash-strapped neighbors feed their families the fried chicken, corn dogs, chips and soda these mini-marts sell--but the experts insist that if the same stores featured cucumbers and apples front-and-center instead, parents would opt for the healthy choice.  And they, as well as their children, would be thinner.

This speculative chain of thinking led the "do something" activists--progressively-bent feds, local governments, university researchers and foundations-- to attack the problem the only way they know how: by throwing money at it.  Pres. Obama's stimulus package--our tax dollars at work, through the Centers for Disease Control bureaucracy-- has awarded thirty communities $230 million in grants to prevent childhood obesity.  Local United Way offices have funded "healthy corner store initiatives," like $50,000 to three stores in Franklinville, Ohio, and an unspecified amount in Seattle to upgrade the healthy-food stock and displays in 22 convenience stores in the Delridge neighborhood.  In addition, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, funded nine sites nationally, including $500,000 to Seattle's King County. In Pennsylvania, $30 million of state grants over three years was triple-matched by $90 million more in grants and loans from The Food Trust, used for 78 grocery outlets in poor neighborhoods.

But the front-page lead article in this week's Sunday Seattle Times paper, combined with its Sunday magazine cover story (funded as a grant project by a California endowment through the University of Southern California) exposes how ineffectual throwing money at fat-causing behaviors really is (even as the feature lamely offers sidebars advising parents on curbing kids' expansion).

The article says that here in my state of Washington, the feds and foundations tossed mega-bucks ($15.5 million from stimulus funds alone) at the "food desert" problem without results. It describes how food-access advocates finally convinced the Delridge "Super 24" corner store to revamp its stock, adding refrigerated cases with an assortment of fruits and veggies. A KOMO TV news story features United Way rep Lauren McGowan pointing to the new cases effusing, "you've got lettuce and limes and lemons and cucumbers, and stuff that families can go home and make a salad, make a fresh meal for their family!"

The news video laments that small convenience stores don't take food stamps, suggesting illogically that this forces homeless customers like Jose Lopez to buy junk food instead: "Oh, I like to have these fruits..." Mr. Lopez, holding a freshly-purchased large coffee says, pointing to a basket of apples, oranges and bananas by the cash register.  He's cut off mid sentence by reporter Elisa Jaffe who finishes, "but they don't take your food stamps."  Lopez shrugs. "They don't."

It's wonderful that kindly community members want their poorer brethren to eat well. But the brethren themselves don't choose to. Bhim Singh, the Delridge store's owner, was lauded in December, 2009 when his new refrigeration units and "healthy choice!" signs touting nutritious items went up. This week's newspaper article, however, provides an update:  "We would spend $200 on vegetables and make only $10," he admits.  He's back to stocking only the longer-shelf life produce he carried before the hoopla, like potatoes and onions.  His clientele, it's clear, keeps him afloat with their fried-food-and soda purchases.

"Officials say they have learned valuable lessons," says the Seattle Times story. "Maybe they didn't spend enough time selling the idea.  In any case, they've budgeted another $1.8 million in hopes of enlisting at least 25 stores."  Don't bore them with facts.

The research considered most definitive on the question of access to healthy food was conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, published in June, 2009.  In it, a national questionnaire (which, when examined, is a pretty poor measure of food access) found that 81 percent of respondents "always had the kinds of food they want to eat."  Sixteen percent had enough, but not "always the kind of food they want to eat." Of that 16%, five percent said they didn't "always have the kinds of food they want to eat" because "it was too hard to get to the store, or the kinds of foods they wanted were not available."  Elderly or infirm people, and those who didn't have the money for food--even if it were easily available--made up more than half of those people--leaving less than 3% of respondents overall who don't "always" have what they want because "the kinds of foods they want are not available."

This calls for another government grant.

Now, nowhere in the study does it ask exactly what are the kinds of foods that respondents wanted.  Might be hallal food, or kosher food.  Might be gluten-free, or sugar-free foods. Might be gourmet cheeses or craft beers.  And of course the questionnaire asked if their desired foods were "always" available. If your market runs out of your brand of cereal or the kind of milk you like, then you aren't "always" able to get what you want.

There's an assumption that people in low-income areas crave fresh fruits and vegetables, but that a nefarious capitalistic force thwarts their innate healthy-food proclivities.

There are indeed market forces at work, and what they do is push shop-keepers to provide their local clientele what that clientele wants--or risk going under.  It's an insult to suggest that poor people don't know the difference between healthy and junk food.  Anyone with a television hears the news stories about Michele Obama's "Let's Move!" program, and watches reports like the video of the Delridge Super 24's new offerings. In 2007 alone, the USDA spent $697 million in classroom education, and every child in school over the last 20 years has, usually by government mandate, learned about good nutrition--but it does no good.  Ask the convenience-store patron buying grease-fried chicken wings about his purchase, and he knows darn well it's less beneficial than the apples he ignored near the cash register.

In fact, that's the exact scenario on the KOMO TV video about the Delridge store.  It opens as heavy-set Joseph Munnerlyn is selecting his purchases. Caught in the act buying junk, he explains, "I'm hungry, I'm trying to get something fast and quick, so I..." A voice-over then interjects that he's "a connoisseur of corner-store meals." Voice up. "Oh, I love it all," Mr. Munnerlyn intones with affection, waving his hand by the fried offerings in a heat-lamp-warmed glass case. "The wings, I mean come on! The breasts, the burritos, the Jo-jos...!" (Jo-jos are breaded and fried potato wedges.)

Bhim Singh owns "Super 24" store
 He gives a sly smile. "I know it's not healthy, but at the same time..." He lifts up an apple from the basket of fruit in front of him at the register. "...It's hard for me to pick up an apple when I've only got two bucks and I've got to feed myself for the rest of the day."  The unchallenged assumption there is that he gets more satisfying food for his money buying Jo-jos than a Jonathan.  It's not his fault.

When it looked at healthy food access by social variables, that Department of Agriculture national study about Americans' access to food found some astonishing conclusions--about supermarkets, typically stocked with a wide assortment of produce-- that the reform-corner-stores crowd might want to consider, such as:

"Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles. Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).

"Overall, ethnic and racial minorities have better access to supermarkets than Whites. Median distance to the nearest supermarket for non-White individuals is 0.63 miles, compared with 0.96 miles on average for Whites.

"Similarly, a smaller percentage of non-Whites (26.6 percent) have low access to supermarkets than do Whites (48.2 percent)."

Given failure to influence purchases when corner stores feature fresh fruits and vegetables, and the fact that poor people and minorities have better access nationally to supermarkets than the financially better off and whites, why are anti-obesity experts so gung-ho on watering so-called "healthy food deserts" with tax money and foundation donations?

Because they're desperately searching for do-able solutions to a problem whose cause has still to be defined, and which has foiled all efforts to solve.

It's really not as if gluttony, sloth, inactivity and even childhood obesity are novel foes. According to CDC statistics, the steep increase in childhood obesity began in 1980 and after reaching an alarming peak a few years ago, has leveled off.  Throughout those years, and particularly since 1990, attention at all levels has focused on the issue.  It's just that these problems have proven resistant to even the most expensive and valiant efforts to overcome them.

For decades, millions of dollars have poured into nutritional education.  At the same time that carbonated soft drink consumption declines (every year for the past six!) organic food options burgeon, gaining by 20% every year in the last decade.  Health food stores, once a niche market, have gone mainstream; a case in point--the Whole Foods supermarket chain, begun in 1980 in Austin, now boasts more than 300 outlets.

Still, the mantra throughout professional obesity-world literature is that the problem requires still more investment of public funds. A 2007 book by the Food and Nutrition Board, Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up? notes that "Government, industry, communities, schools, and families are responding to the childhood obesity epidemic by implementing a variety of policies, programs, and other interventions," but decides "the current level of investment by the public and private sectors still does not match the extent of the problem."

Of course, its main finding is that we just don't know if all the spending and talking and teaching and fruit-and-veggie-touting is making a difference, phrasing this conclusion in admirably academic terms: "Current data and evidence are inadequate for a comprehensive assessment of the progress that has been made in preventing childhood obesity across the United States."  Ahem.

Obesity in children--and adults--is a far more complex phenomenon than well-meaning agencies and pundits are willing to admit.  And because its causes are not yet understood, creating innumerable boards and bureaucracies to eradicate it (and make food deserts bloom) have failed. To be sure, some money must go toward innovative medical research to tease out the true sources of obesity--and whether the future generation is as doomed by it as alarmists insist.

I suspect that genetics and environmental influences (A virus, like the Adenovirus 36? An "obeso-genic" substance or situation that, like carcinogens, throws cells out of whack?) will prove contributors to the problem, and that unfair stereotypes that suggest all fat people are ignorant, have no self-control and need patronizing interventions will be squashed like the unsold tomatoes at Super 24 in Delridge, Washington.


  1. This article is very well written. The problem with obesity has always been with us. Some people will always make choices that are not good, and others will make choices based on what they think is good.

    We live in a country and time where food is very plentiful. When food is not as plentiful, people were forced to eat what was available. Growing up during the late fifties and sixties on a farm, we had plenty of food to eat. It was a rare treat to get a soda to drink or potato chips or fast food.

    I wonder if we are focused on the wrong things. We should be concerned about each other but not in the way it seems these bureaucrats are in trying to throw money at the so-called problems of society.

    We must be free to make our own choices even if they are not good. By giving people responsibility for their lives and the choices they make. This with information and education people may begin to make better choices.

    That is how we teach our children as they grow up. Very few will comply when forced to do something, so we had better educate and let people make their own decisions.

  2. Lavoy, thanks for your comment and compliment. I'm wondering if your idea that we should educate people and then trust them to make their own choices will make any difference--because doing just that hasn't improved the obesity situation.

    You made a good point that the availability and plentitude of food increases consumption. That would argue to close down the corner stores rather than subsidize their new refrigerators! Just joking--we're fortunate in the US not to have to retreat to days of limited food supply, even if people WERE healthiner then by necessity.

    What I'm pointing out is that condescending do-gooders are not only wasting huge amounts of money, but they're acting mostly out of a need to just DO something rather than from evidence that their efforts will work.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great article! Loved it.

    It's easy to forget that we're talking about kids. You might be able to convince a teenager to stop eating junk food by educating him on the consequences of obesity and why it very important to lead a healthy lifestyle, but 6 year olds are hardly capable of fully understanding the consequences of eating too much junk food. At least I can say from personal experience that I was constantly told as a kid that I was going to get diabetes if I didn't stop eating so much candy. Did that actually deter me from eating candy? Ha! Of course not.

    As is classic with a lot of do-gooders, they identify real problems and have a genuine desire to help, but have little to no practical wisdom on how to approach these issues. What they never seem to take into account is incentives.

    Kids might not have complex ideals that drive them to take actions like adults do, but they certainly respond to incentives both negative (punishments) and positive (rewards) just like the rest of us. From the perspective of a kid, why should I eat food I dislike when I can just as easily eat food I love?

    It doesn't take much to motivate kids. You can get them going with rewards that are meager for us but mean the world to them.

    You know what might work? If kids were given actual money for eating healthy food, that might actually encourage them to eat those veggies they dislike. Maybe a 2 dollar reward for eating all the vegetables on your plate. Of course, they might just go ahead and spend the money they earned on junk, so I'm not sure if my monetary-reward system would actually work in practice. Just a thought experiment.

    Another problem is that kids today are used to having their parents be their own personal genies. Lots of parents these days do not have the will or character to confront their kids, so they end up giving their kids what they want all the time as long as it gets them to stop being a nuisance.

    I memorized entire chapters of the Bible for a reward as little as a 2 dollar chocolate. I also translated the parable of the prodigal son to ancient greek when I was 9 for equally meager rewards. I didn't do these things because I was especially smart as a kid or anything, I did them because my father knew that incentives mattered. This might not work as well in today's "modern age" where kids are used to getting much bigger rewards from their parents for little-to-no effort at all.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. The whole notion of needing government to make nutritional decisions is a very dangerous path to take.

    The assumption then becomes that your body is the property of the state, and you have no personal right in deciding how you want to live your life.

    Yes many children are fat, many children develop diabetes, but its only a problem because we have removed the consequences from the parents and given it to the state.

    State welfare removes the parents incentive to take better care of their kids, because the state will pay for their medical cost. And rewarding children with money as James strong stated would just give the kids money to buy sweets after the vegetable. Better to fine the parents if they are unable to properly take care of their children health. Then you would see parents really take active control of their children nutrition.

    The government programs you described in this article is madness, using hundreds of millions of dollars at opening stores?!? what the hell? The people already have access to food that produces income for the state, but the crusaders wants the state to run the shops at a economic loss?

    If anything your article just proves that hysterical food crusaders dont know anything about economics, especially deficit spending.

  6. seems that with my nom de plume (FatScribe), I should be commenting here in this space for sure.

    so well written. there is no doubt that some of us are genetically built a certain way (we used to say Susie or Sam were "big boned"), predisposed to a life of husky living. but, even so, there are recent studies that show that these same individuals who are active are much more physically fit over thin individuals who are couch jockeys, riding a life of inactivity.

    it always comes down to choices, ms. D, and self-control and discipline and, yes, being comfortable with your appearance regardless of what madison ave. (and our peers, or even our high school versions of ourselves) tries
    to tell us is healthy, sexy, or fit.

    this piece of yours is one of the better ones since i've been a "follower." thx!

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