by Diana R. H. Winters
Last week, in an article titled “Food deserts may not matter that much,” The Economist reported on a study by three scholars finding that when trying to account for the disparity in eating patterns between rich and poor people, the answer may not be in the availability of healthy food. In “The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States,” Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, and Jean-Pierre Dubé found that although it is true that “there is a meaningful nutrition-income relationship in grocery purchases,”—that people with more money buy more healthful food—this is not due to the supply, or lack thereof, of healthy food in lower income neighborhoods. The authors looked at the effect of the entry of new stores carrying healthy food options into neighborhoods that had previously had fewer healthy options, concluding that there was little effect “on the composition of the shopping basket.” This is because people were willing to drive to supermarkets if there were no supermarkets in their neighborhoods. A new market may reduce transport costs, but did not change individual preferences. These findings cast doubt on the “food desert” hypothesis, which explains the fact that poor people eat less healthfully by pointing to the lower availability of healthy food in lower income neighborhoods.
This is not the first study to question the food desert hypothesis. Earlier studies have found, among other things, that putting new stores into underserved neighborhoods without other interventions to change shopping and eating habits may not have the effect on dietary choices or obesity rates that had been predicted. In this extremely comprehensive new study, the authors buttressed policy suggestions with rigorous empirical work. They found, as did the earlier studies, that changing demand was more important than changing supply, and that increasing people’s knowledge about food could be an important driver of change. For this reason, “policies geared toward nutrition education may be more effective than subsidies and grants geared toward food retailers.”
The policy conclusion that public money is better spent in education than in retail is a significant one, and a progressive one. The coverage of this study in The Economist, however, is anything but. Instead, the article’s focus, encapsulated by its title, is that the availability of healthful food may not affect food-related health outcomes as much as once thought. Instead, the article tells us that it is preference, not availability, which drives food purchasing. Although it notes that preference may be influenced by education, the article does not mention that the authors of the study it covers emphasize the need to shift our food policy dollars. And without noting that preference itself is formed by historical forces, including generations of poor supply and lack of access to education about nutrition in lower income neighborhoods, readers are left to assume that a preference for unhealthy food is an individual and personal failure. By doing this, The Economist’s article erases the institutionally supported and sanctioned inequality that partially created the obesity epidemic and its related problems, reinforces the perception that government has no place in food policy, and shifts the burden from public to private responsibility for the solution.