April 12, 2010
Federal Anti-Obesity Initiative to Eliminate Food DesertsBy Peter Wilson
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:
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:
The report continues:
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:
How to address this veritable epidemic? Not to worry. Big government to the rescue! Let's Move reports:
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:
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.