Federal Anti-Obesity Initiative to Eliminate Food Deserts

Before you get alarmed about the feds prying the Häagen-Dazs out of your cold dead fingers, the word "desert" in the title is not misspelled. A "food desert" is an area without a grocery store. For example, the Mojave Desert. Food deserts have been targeted by the White House, which has budgeted $400 million dollars a year for an intrusive nanny-state solution to solve a nonexistent problem.

First Lady Michelle Obama defined the problem at the Childhood Obesity Summit at the White House on Friday, one of the four program areas of her "Let's Move" campaign:

We can do much more to make sure that all families have access to healthy and affordable food in their own communities. Twenty-three point five million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in communities without a supermarket ... So, we're working with the private sector to reach a very ambitious goal, and that is to completely eliminate food deserts in this country.

Now that the federal government is responsible for any health problems caused by the things you put in your mouth, the federal government is obliged to intervene. If you live in a food desert where the only available choice is between fast food French fries and convenience store Twinkies, you have no choice but to eat junk food, according to the First Lady.

Consider, however, that a food desert is defined by the USDA and on the Let's Move website as "neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket." Stop for a second to wrap your mind around that. If your grocery store is more than a mile away, the federal government defines your community as "without a supermarket."

When Mrs. Obama cites 23.5 million people living in food deserts, she of course doesn't include Robert Redford's ranch in Park City. She's reaching a hand out to "low-income communities." A U.S. Department of Agriculture report, "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences," cited on the Letsmove.gov site, however, makes an important distinction not mentioned by Mrs. Obama:

Not all of these 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.

The report continues:

Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes). However, 93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove.

To summarize the USDA findings: 11.5 million people spend 4.5 minutes longer traveling to the grocery store. Does this qualify as "significantly more time"? Of this number, 7%, or 805,000 people, have to walk or take public transportation to the grocery store. Therefore the food desert problem -- people more than a mile from a grocery store without a car -- afflicts 0.2% of the U.S. population.

An unkind person could point out that liberals normally want to get us out of our cars, praising the health benefits of walking and the low carbon footprint of public transportation. In this case -- and I agree -- they believe that carrying home groceries without a car is a burden. 

Therefore, these underprivileged people are left with only fast food and convenience stores, right? Not exactly. The USDA studied "40,000 demographically representative households across the United States." They found that convenience store "prices paid for similar goods are, on average, higher than at supermarkets." Who would have thought? More significantly:

Food purchases at convenience stores make up a small portion of total food expenditures (2 to 3 percent) for low-income consumers.  Low- and middle-income households are more likely to purchase food at supercenters, where prices are lower.

How to address this veritable epidemic? Not to worry. Big government to the rescue!  Let's Move reports:

As part of the President's proposed FY 2011 budget, the Administration announced a new program - the Healthy Food Financing Initiative -- a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services which will invest $400 million a year to provide innovative financing to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options.  Grants will also help bring farmers markets and fresh foods into underserved communities, boosting both family health and local economies.  Through these initiatives and private sector engagement, the Administration will work to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years.

We're going to "invest" $400 million a year to have federal agents "bring grocery stores to underserved areas" and "help" convenience stores carry (high-priced) apples and tomatoes? How exactly do federally funded farmers markets "boost local economies"? If the feds insisted on getting involved, wouldn't it be simpler to sign people up for a home delivery service like Peapod?

Michelle Obama, however, sees low-income people as victims incapable of taking responsibility for their family's diets. You can see the attitude in her White House speech:

[Living in a food desert] means far fewer healthier options are available to so many families who are going to be working to try to figure this out.  They won't have access to the resources they need to do what we're asking them to do.

It's reminiscent of her imperious speech during the campaign: "Barack Obama will require you to work ... Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual ...etc." She sees government in control; families are going to be working"; government is "asking" them to eat healthy food, and government then has to provide "the resources they need."

The food desert concept overlooks the daily mobility of the American population. People often commute ten or twenty miles to work, passing grocery stores along their routes. In rural communities, people who choose to live more than a mile from a grocery store typically drive into town every day for work or school. Furthermore, parents who are motivated to feed healthy food to their children won't give up because their commute to the grocery store is 4.5 minutes longer than the national average.

People are also willing to drive a lot farther than one mile to go to "supercenters, where prices are lower." Any chance that the Obama administration doesn't like people shopping at Walmart?

I don't deny that too many kids eat too much junk food. I volunteer at a charter school with a low-income population, where a typical breakfast is a candy bar on the way to school. The school's contribution is to add a nutrition class to the curriculum. Health education is important; you can build federally subsidized grocery stores to compete with Walmart, but you can't force people to buy healthy food.  Not yet, anyway.

Peter Wilson is a writer who blogs at walkingdogcapitalist.
Before you get alarmed about the feds prying the Häagen-Dazs out of your cold dead fingers, the word "desert" in the title is not misspelled. A "food desert" is an area without a grocery store. For example, the Mojave Desert. Food deserts have been targeted by the White House, which has budgeted $400 million dollars a year for an intrusive nanny-state solution to solve a nonexistent problem.

First Lady Michelle Obama defined the problem at the Childhood Obesity Summit at the White House on Friday, one of the four program areas of her "Let's Move" campaign:

We can do much more to make sure that all families have access to healthy and affordable food in their own communities. Twenty-three point five million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in communities without a supermarket ... So, we're working with the private sector to reach a very ambitious goal, and that is to completely eliminate food deserts in this country.

Now that the federal government is responsible for any health problems caused by the things you put in your mouth, the federal government is obliged to intervene. If you live in a food desert where the only available choice is between fast food French fries and convenience store Twinkies, you have no choice but to eat junk food, according to the First Lady.

Consider, however, that a food desert is defined by the USDA and on the Let's Move website as "neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket." Stop for a second to wrap your mind around that. If your grocery store is more than a mile away, the federal government defines your community as "without a supermarket."

When Mrs. Obama cites 23.5 million people living in food deserts, she of course doesn't include Robert Redford's ranch in Park City. She's reaching a hand out to "low-income communities." A U.S. Department of Agriculture report, "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences," cited on the Letsmove.gov site, however, makes an important distinction not mentioned by Mrs. Obama:

Not all of these 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.

The report continues:

Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes). However, 93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove.

To summarize the USDA findings: 11.5 million people spend 4.5 minutes longer traveling to the grocery store. Does this qualify as "significantly more time"? Of this number, 7%, or 805,000 people, have to walk or take public transportation to the grocery store. Therefore the food desert problem -- people more than a mile from a grocery store without a car -- afflicts 0.2% of the U.S. population.

An unkind person could point out that liberals normally want to get us out of our cars, praising the health benefits of walking and the low carbon footprint of public transportation. In this case -- and I agree -- they believe that carrying home groceries without a car is a burden. 

Therefore, these underprivileged people are left with only fast food and convenience stores, right? Not exactly. The USDA studied "40,000 demographically representative households across the United States." They found that convenience store "prices paid for similar goods are, on average, higher than at supermarkets." Who would have thought? More significantly:

Food purchases at convenience stores make up a small portion of total food expenditures (2 to 3 percent) for low-income consumers.  Low- and middle-income households are more likely to purchase food at supercenters, where prices are lower.

How to address this veritable epidemic? Not to worry. Big government to the rescue!  Let's Move reports:

As part of the President's proposed FY 2011 budget, the Administration announced a new program - the Healthy Food Financing Initiative -- a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services which will invest $400 million a year to provide innovative financing to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options.  Grants will also help bring farmers markets and fresh foods into underserved communities, boosting both family health and local economies.  Through these initiatives and private sector engagement, the Administration will work to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years.

We're going to "invest" $400 million a year to have federal agents "bring grocery stores to underserved areas" and "help" convenience stores carry (high-priced) apples and tomatoes? How exactly do federally funded farmers markets "boost local economies"? If the feds insisted on getting involved, wouldn't it be simpler to sign people up for a home delivery service like Peapod?

Michelle Obama, however, sees low-income people as victims incapable of taking responsibility for their family's diets. You can see the attitude in her White House speech:

[Living in a food desert] means far fewer healthier options are available to so many families who are going to be working to try to figure this out.  They won't have access to the resources they need to do what we're asking them to do.

It's reminiscent of her imperious speech during the campaign: "Barack Obama will require you to work ... Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual ...etc." She sees government in control; families are going to be working"; government is "asking" them to eat healthy food, and government then has to provide "the resources they need."

The food desert concept overlooks the daily mobility of the American population. People often commute ten or twenty miles to work, passing grocery stores along their routes. In rural communities, people who choose to live more than a mile from a grocery store typically drive into town every day for work or school. Furthermore, parents who are motivated to feed healthy food to their children won't give up because their commute to the grocery store is 4.5 minutes longer than the national average.

People are also willing to drive a lot farther than one mile to go to "supercenters, where prices are lower." Any chance that the Obama administration doesn't like people shopping at Walmart?

I don't deny that too many kids eat too much junk food. I volunteer at a charter school with a low-income population, where a typical breakfast is a candy bar on the way to school. The school's contribution is to add a nutrition class to the curriculum. Health education is important; you can build federally subsidized grocery stores to compete with Walmart, but you can't force people to buy healthy food.  Not yet, anyway.

Peter Wilson is a writer who blogs at walkingdogcapitalist.