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.
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.)