Monday, April 23, 2012

What do "Food Deserts" and Cardboard Arcades have in common?

One of my favorite games is finding connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. What do "healthy food deserts" have to do with Internet sensation Caine Monroy, the 9-year-old who made a cardboard arcade at his dad's auto parts store in LA?

Aside from the fact they both interest me, they both say something about the free enterprise system.

Lots of my friends sent me last week's New York Times front-page story about "healthy food deserts" because they recalled my post nearly a year ago saying the same thing. New studies now verify that obese people don't lack access to fresh food. The twisted conventional wisdom blames eeeevil fast food chains, with their nefarious advertising campaigns, for expanding the national girth by forcing out sources of healthy veggies:  in 2008 a third of the US population was overweight, and an additional third obese.

The assumption is that the obese would choose salads over Big Macs if only they had lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes nearby. Our government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars directly, and at least another $250 million into tax credits to make food deserts bloom with carrots and broccoli (detailed in my blog). The problem is--all along studies have shown that people in the poorest neighborhoods, with the highest percentages of obese residents, actually have greater choices for food than other areas, including stores with bountiful fresh vegetables.

Yes, I told you so, and I also told you that the real issue isn't availability of food but the fact that our "do something" culture tries to spend its way out of problems, even before understanding their causes.  We don't need to throw money at corner stores so that they'll put baskets of fruit by the cash register (to rot).  We need to find out the real reasons why obesity rates climbed steeply between 1980 and 2000, and remained steady ever since.  Is it a virus (Adeno 36)? A mutant gene (called "FTO"), a hormonal shift (related to ghrelin) or something else?  It's not that big corporations, in their greediness, foist gluttony on a hapless public.

And neither is it only that consumers themselves are shoveling sugary calories into their mouths while inert at their computer screens.  I was struck viewing an excellent BBC TV series called "Why are Thin People Not Fat?" that followed ten thin people through four weeks of consuming twice the calories they needed, exercise forbidden.  Under careful medical supervision that monitored everything--including minute changes in body composition measured inside a strange egg-shaped device that sucks out the air inside--volunteers documented their own fattening processes. It was expected they'd gain about 15% of their body weights in that time, but the "winner," the person gaining the most, added 9%, practically invisible on his frame because it was muscle, not fat. Some added as little as 2% to their body weights. And in every case, after the experiment the extra weight fell off effortlessly, almost immediately.

We learn from this that some people are designed to be thin; others (for a variety of reasons) are going to be fat, and temporary alterations in consumption aren't likely to bring permanent results. Ask anyone who's dieted.

Flash now to an industrious kid in Los Angeles, who instead of spending a lonely summer watching Hulu or playing video games, decided to create something: A place for other people to have fun, from which he would profit.  Caine Monroy made discarded cardboard boxes into an old-fashioned arcade, where players could throw a wad-of-tape ball through a net, or dodge rows of scotch-taped toy soldiers, and if successful could trade win tickets Caine pushed through a slot for prizes. The games weren't really impressive, and the ever-hopeful Caine was heart-rending, waiting by his creation with nary a customer, hour after hour.

Until documentary-maker Nirvan Mullick happened by for an auto part, and was captivated by the Rube Goldberg array of cardboard options. His touching 11-minute YouTube about the flash mob he organized to surprise the boy went viral and catapulted Caine and his kindly dad to national fame. Now a scholarship fund for his college education holds $170,000, according to a New York Times article, and Forbes magazine predicts Caine will be a billionaire within 30 years.

I'm not the first to point out how Caine's charming story illustrates that the drive to achieve and improve one's lot still thrives in America, and that the entrepreneurial spirit flourishes even in the face of discouragement (like zero foot traffic near your cardboard arcade). But  the same free enterprise system explains why the notion of "food deserts" is a crock.

Business is wonderful; Owners profit by providing people something they want, at a price they're willing to pay. A 9-year-old bases his arcade on the premise that others want to have fun; a grocer in the inner city stocks his shelves in response to the foods his customers want to buy.  It turns out that even with vegetables available, more people want to buy packaged food. When the system works, supply responds to demand.

The impressive thing about Caine isn't really his adorable discarded-carton arcade, but his indomitable industry. Before taping together his boxes, Caine tried peddling yard signs, and sold soda and chips door-to-door in his neighborhood. He offered rubber bracelets on eBay and at swap meets. If Nirvan Mullick didn't happen by, Caine would no doubt have invented another get-rich-quick scheme.  How come a kid knows something governments don't? Some people do

The bottom line actually refers to the top: social programs from the government down seldom succeed in improving people's values, but the values of tenacity and applied creativity can make a big difference when expressed from the individual up.

For $15, Caine will sell you a self-designed "staff" t-shirt that says "Caine's Arcade" on the back. The Times article describes a shirt purchaser who offered him a $20 bill. Before pulling out his stash,"without a hint of sarcasm," Caine queried his customer: "Do you need any change?" For $2, he'll sell you a "fun pass" good for 500 turns, 20 seconds each, as counted aloud by the young proprietor.

By contrast, handing a corner grocery store $100,000 in tax money to add refrigerated veggie display cases to supply a nonexistent demand makes no business sense. Instead, the purpose is to salve the "do something" conscience of bureaucrats and bleeding-hearts far away, who think they know best how to help fat unfortunates.

Subsidizing stores to carry undesired items shows appalling disregard for a free-market system 9-year-old Caine already understands. Which effort is more likely to succeed--the one to slim down neighbors by stocking more veggies for them to buy, or a kid willing to keep taking entrepreneurial risks until one breaks through?

I'll take the fun pass.

No comments:

Post a Comment