What is wrong with this picture?
Let's start with what it is supposed to be. Those peach shaded areas spread across vast reaches of the American landscape are supposed to be our nation's so called food deserts. What is a "food desert"? According to those who presume to rule over us (or as it is officially known, the working group of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative [HFFI], a partnership between the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, and the Agriculture Department [USDA]), a food desert is:
a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store:
To qualify as a "low-income community," a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the census tract's median family income;
To qualify as a "low-access community," at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
The HFFI is a key part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative. HFFI is supposed to expand the availability of nutritious food to food deserts by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers' markets with fresh and healthy food. The purpose of this map, and the accompanying press kit, complete with audio and video presentations and clickable links to be added to web sites, is to highlight this signature program. Indeed, the map seems to be designed to spread the word that Michelle Obama is addressing a serious crisis of nationwide import.
I find it hard to take a government initiative seriously when areas it labels "food deserts" include some of the most productive agricultural land on the planet. Note that some peach areas in Virginia are in the legendarily fertile Shenandoah Valley. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle! Where exactly do the members of the working group of the HFFI think that the food in their grocery stores and farmers' markets came from? Much of the seasonal produce they eat in Washington DC comes from the Shenandoah Valley.
To me this looks like a case study of how a desire to solve a very narrow problem can become a near criminal waste of taxpayer dollars. When I lived in Chicago I often heard stories about how hard to was for poor residents of that city to obtain fresh produce and wholesome food. Many of the urban poor do not own vehicles and with their traditional low margins, major grocery chains tend to stay away from lower income areas where theft and insurance costs run high. The small convenience stores that do serve such areas tend not to stock either produce or bulk sized items. It is also difficult and even dangerous to transport more than a small quantity of groceries on public transportation. These are all issues that can be adequately addressed with narrowly focused volunteer and public/private initiatives. For example, a local church or community center that has a van could be offered a grant to help transport people who don't own cars to and from a supermarket on a weekly basis.
Whether it was from the leftist desire to achieve cosmic justice, a need for self-aggrandizement, the desire to put Treasury Department Community Development Financial Institutions funds into the hands of political friends, or just natural bureaucratic creep, this map, shows that what may have started as Michelle Obama's concern for the healthy eating problems of residents of handful of urban ghettos seems to be blossoming into a nationwide boondoggle rich in pork barrel possibilities.
I live in one of HFFI's rural food deserts. No one around here talks much about money, but it is common knowledge that a great many people are often short of ready cash. Despite that we all tend to eat well. That's because almost every home has an often sizable vegetable garden. Fruit and nut trees abound, as do chicken coops. Most of the men hunt deer and turkey in season and there are small scale slaughter operations that will process and freezer wrap the grass fed steer people raise. The state DNR keeps the local streams well stocked with trout and foraging for ramps, morel mushrooms, and wild berries is a common recreational activity in season. Nor is transportation an issue as it is in urban areas. Rural America tends to be blessed with an abundance of vehicles for all seasons, road conditions, and the price at the pump. I like to joke that I know gas prices are rising when the shiny pickup trucks start to be outnumbered in the parking lot of the local country store by dull coated compact sedans dating from the 1980s and early '90s that are stored in barns for just such spikes.
Rural Americans also know to plan ahead with detailed shopping lists so as not to run out between trips. People are neighborly, too. If I forgot something on my Sunday trip to town, my neighbor doesn't mind getting it on her Tuesday grocery run. The idea that residents of rural America need an initiative planned by Michelle and her merry band of academic experts to be run by Washington based bureaucrats to help us put nutritious food on our tables is ludicrous. My neighbor and I were talking about this in his little country store, an institution that both serves our material needs between grocery runs and acts as the community bulletin board. His take was that it was all just more money from Washington to the politicians in the county seat. A county seat, it should be mentioned that has been in Democrat hands for decades.
The HFFI was budgeted at $400 million for 2011. The GOP has proposed to put the program on the chopping block for 2012. Looking at this incredibly silly map, that sounds like a great idea.