Food For Thought

A while back, the comment-thread of a post about the government shutdown turned into a discussion about the obesity of the American poor. A commenter remarked:

The reason why many poor people are obese, of course, is that the cheapest foods tend to be high in carbs and low in nutrients, which often leads to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems.

I replied:

Interesting. The cheapest food everywhere, throughout history, has always been starchy and nutrient-poor.

If you go to, say, poor Asian neighborhoods, where people of no greater income live (especially considering that government food subsidies are readily available), you don’t see much obesity. You see women in the markets, selecting inexpensive but nourishing ingredients to take home to cook.

Perhaps the difference is mostly that: taking eating seriously enough to make the effort to seek out nourishing food, and to cook it at home, rather than as just another passing appetite to satisfy with the least effort possible, and the no reflection upon the long-term consequences of one’s dietary choices.

The exchange continued:

This probably has a lot to do with what is locally available. If you live in Flushing, you can get great food which is fresh and cheap. If you live in Harlem, your choices are mostly overpriced supermarkets, overpriced Korean markets, and fast food joints.

I pointed out:

People only sell what others will buy.

This subject of “food deserts” — inner-city areas where fresh and nutritious food is hard to find — has been in the air again lately. In yesterday’s Best of the Web opinion digest, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto had this to say:

Poverty used to mean going hungry. These days — at least in the developed West, and especially in America — it means getting hungry, consuming loads of inexpensive carbohydrates, and becoming fat and unhealthy. It’s progress of a sort, but those concerned with social uplift aren’t wrong to see a problem here. But their assumptions about its cause and solution have been tested and found wanting.

As National Journal’s Clara Ritger describes it:

With the obesity epidemic in full swing and millions of American [sic] living in neighborhoods where fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, the Obama administration thought it saw a solution: fund stores that will stock fresh, affordable produce in these deprived areas.

But now, three years and $500 million into the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative, there’s a problem: A study suggests it’s not working.

The idea behind what we wish the administration had the wit to call the Affordable Pear Act is that “food deserts” exist because of a market failure–because produce is in short supply. The experiment suggests the problem is more one of demand.

Ritger reports on a study in the February issue of Health Affairs. Researchers from Penn State and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “studied two comparable neighborhoods in Philadelphia”:

When a grocery store was opened in one Philadelphia food desert, 26.7 percent of residents made it their main grocery store and 51.4 percent indicated using it for any food shopping, the report found. But among the population that used the new supermarket, the researchers saw no significant improvement in BMI, fruit and vegetable intake, or perceptions of food accessibility, although there was a significant improvement in perception of accessibility to fruits and vegetables. . . .
The researchers compared the Philadelphia neighborhood that would soon receive a new supermarket to a similar community three miles away, hoping to avoid any crossover effect from the opening of the new store. They polled the two communities before and after the store opened to see the effect of the change.

The results “mirror findings in the U.K., where researchers created a similar comparison of two neighborhoods in Scotland and observed no net effect on fruit and vegetable intake,” Ritger adds.

All of which suggests that the Affordable Pear Act rests on a backward assumption about cause and effect. It’s not that most “food desert” denizens eat unhealthy food because grocers refuse to supply them with fruits and vegetables. Instead, grocers don’t supply them with fruits and vegetables because the demand is insufficient.

Theodore Dalrymple wrote a piercing essay, back in 2002, about the malnourishment of the underclass. He wrote:

It has become a truth universally acknowledged that food deserts actually exist and must be the fault of the supermarket chains (and, by extension, the System). Indeed, the government, ever on the lookout for new areas of life to control with its dictatorial benevolence, has proposed a new law to eradicate what is now known as “food poverty” by irrigating these deserts with subsidies to food suppliers. As yet the additional provisions of the bill are not at all firm, except for the establishment of a Food Poverty Authority in every district, manned by bureaucrats, who will measure food poverty and count the miles people have to go to get fresh vegetables. One man’s poverty is another man’s employment opportunity: as long ago as the sixteenth century, a German bishop remarked that the poor are a gold mine.

Nothing has changed, at least not for the better. Read Dalrymple’s article here. (Though depressing, it’s well worth your time — and it contains the cleverest paraphrase of Hobbes ever written.)


  1. Eating habits make up an important part of any culture’s heritage and thus those habits, for most people, become ingrained learned behavior patterns in childhood. Education can alter these behaviors only when people make a concerted, long-term effort to the changes. Therein lies the rub, most of the people, whom the healthy-eating crowd wish to reform, aren’t receptive to being educated or motivated to change. Laziness seems to be endemic, apathy well-nigh terminal.

    I watched a Korean friend prepare a quick supper for her children and my children (5 children and 2 adults) over decades ago, which left a lasting impact on me. She pulled out a pile of fresh vegetables and chopped away. Then she pulled out one steak and thinly sliced about half of it. In minutes, she stir-fried both, adding a few seasonings. She had rice prepared in her rice cooker. The vegetable to meat ratio runs completely opposite of American eating habits.

    I’ve noticed, while checking out customers where I work, that many Hispanic folks, generally, buy a lot more fresh produce than either most white folks or black folks, but it’s also a very heavy on the meat culture.

    Dalrymple hits on this and further simply by observing what people buy to eat, you can quickly discern in which home food is prepared and eaten by a family and in which homes the inhabitants graze independently of each other. People buy food differently for these two disparate lifestyles. Granted all my evidence cited is anecdotal, not scientific in the least, but civilization starts with the first building block of a family gathered together to share meals, in my humble opinion.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  2. Hi LB,

    Though I realize you base your conjectures on anecdotal evidence, I am inclined to concur nevertheless. It simply makes sense to me.

    That being said, I fear you will be subjected to allegations of racism from the PC police, because, you know, it can’t make sense to the Left if any culture is deemed inferior (in any sense whatsoever) to any other culture.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    I can corroborate what Ms. Belle writes about Latinos from my own anecdotal evidence: there seems to be a lot of fruit and vegetable places in Mexican neighborhoods here in California. Hence obesity among the poor may be an ethnic thing more than a class thing. (Or it could be a side effect of sickle cell anemia, which I’ve heard is contracted by licking too many food stamps.) Proving the old adage once again: one man’s fish is another man’s poisson.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  4. (Or it could be a side effect of sickle cell anemia, which I’ve heard is contracted by licking too many food stamps.)

    Your sarcasm is duly noted, but it’s been EBT cards in all states – swiped just like any other debit cards. SNAP benefits are also in card form. WIC uses vouchers, which are processed by endorsing them like a personal check at the register. No “stamps” to lick anywhere in the welfare system, that I know of. Even S&H green stamps disappeared and I remember my mother filling up books of those. She also collected Philly cigar bands from my father’s cigars, which could be redeemed for various merchandise – she got her sewing machine that way. My grandmother collected 12 full-place settings of Spode’s china and serving pieces, piece by piece, in some laundry detergent or something like that in the 1930s. Growing up in rural PA, without any silver spoons in my family tree, we learned self-reliance, not government dependency. Don’t take that the wrong way, one-eyed, sir, I don’t begrudge food or food assistance to needy people. I see it abused, because I work in retail, just an ordinary job. Way too often, I have rung up customers splitting their order into EBT purchases and then other frivolous electronic gadgets, etc., while chatting on a fancy smartphone…. And that no where captures the fraud in areas where benefits are traded, in lieu of cash.
    Often, less fortunate people around the world are amazed at the obesity among America’s poor – this is not because of poverty – it’s because of bad food choices and culturally-ingrained unhealthy food preparation habits (lots of frying) for those who do actually cook food. The other serious problem among younger folks is way too many don’t know how to cook anything beyond microwaving prepackaged garbage. Saint Michelle’s organic gardening or waxing on about “food deserts” hasn’t even made a dent in changing the eating habits in the black community, because it’s very hard to change the way people eat.
    Believe me, I know how hard it is to retrain my eating habits, because I am still working on my own, having grown up eating fatty, calorie-laden PA Dutch food, where we ate pie with breakfast, lunch and dinner. We even have Funny Cake, which is a pie that has a yellow cake filling and chocolate goo in the bottom. Only the PA Dutch would fill a pie with a cake, lol. It’s really yummy and I used to bake Funny Cake often when my kids were young. Shoofly pie – another iconic PA Dutch pie – buttery crumbs with molasses in a pie shell.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Apropos ethnic food choices:


    Posted February 8, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Comfort chicken:


    Posted February 8, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  7. Too many carbs:


    Posted February 8, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  8. The one eyed man says

    Ms. Belle: I was joking about the food stamps.

    However I did live in PA until I was ten, where my mother also collected S&H green stamps, we got potato chips every week in big Charles Chips aluminum cans, and I vividly remember the worst choke in sports history: the demise of the ’64 Phillies.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Dom says

    LB, did you ever eat at Zinn’s diner? The joke was, it’ll put pimples on a pig. PA Dutch food is incredibly rich and fatty, but the PA Dutch themselves are not obese. Do you think it’s from all the work?

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  10. “If you live in Flushing, you can get great food which is fresh and cheap. If you live in Harlem, your choices are mostly overpriced supermarkets, overpriced Korean markets, and fast food joints.”

    There’s a Fairway Market in Harlem, a supermarket that has a wide enough selection and low enough prices that it attracts shoppers from further away parts of Manhattan.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Harlem is a pretty upscale place nowadays. The harder neighborhoods are places like Brownsville in the outer boroughs.

    Posted February 8, 2014 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Kristophr says

    Food in the US has become cheap enough to be a source of cheap entertainment.

    That is the reason for the fat.

    A friend of mine was flown to Belo Horizonte in Brazil for a software project, and spent 6 month there ( while paid US wages, the bastard ). His coworkers were utterly amazed when he started eating at his desk. Brazilians considered eating to be something you only do at meal-times. His coworkers were also a damned sight less overweight than he was.

    Posted February 9, 2014 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  13. JK says

    Isn’t Brownsville in Texas?

    Or has Brownsville like Detroit petitioned to become a province of Canada?

    I only ask because as Dave Barry informs us, petitioning Canada has it’s downsides even upon acceptance – Justin Bieber given the choice of enlisting in the USMC or going to prison, Detroit easily and immediately accepted until that is, getting caught and quickly deported for shoplifting.

    And now that Parris Island is given the impossible choice of either flunking Bieber or Detroit as unfit – neither able to pass the requisite chin-ups, not even with our reduced “nevertheless exactingly equal female infraternal standards P/T tests” – I’m given to understand it’s only gonna get harder.

    Canada’s Mayor Ford and State’s Nuland’ve been assigned DI duties.

    Worm Island will never be the same.

    Posted February 9, 2014 at 2:34 am | Permalink

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