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Thursday March 22, 2018

Is the food dessert phenomenon real?

The idea of “food deserts,"  low-income pockets with limited access to healthy foods that USDA says millions of Americans now live within, has an intuitive attraction, says University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement.

The one hole in this appealing story, Zeng will tell the annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association in January in San Francisco, is that the numbers simply don't support it.

Zeng's latest work helps disentangle all the "confounding mechanisms" that are over-simplified by the food deserts narrative. He reports that the widely held theory in the scientific literature that longer distance and thus more difficult access to the supermarket leads to obesity in nearby citizens is not generally true when individual preferences and travel costs are considered. This reality helps explain, at least in part, why researchers who actually measure the association between the food environment and obesity levels have found only mixed and contradictory results. 

To really get at the question of food deserts, he writes, it is necessary to consider the particulars of individual cases which the food-desert generalization averages, including special food environments, extreme preferences, random supermarket travel, and income changes. For example, he points out:

  • Longer distances to a traditional supermarket may incentivize residents to walk, increasing exercise and health.
  • A closer store could allow a resident to make more frequent trips and facilitate her buying fresh items. Yet, the gas money she saves would also be available for additional food items, some of which may be less healthy.
  • In contrast, a nearer store for another might simply mean that unhealthy food items are available at lower time and monetary costs. Longer supermarket distance unambiguously reduces the weight of a person who already eats healthy, but is ambiguous for an unhealthy eater. Supermarket access alone does not determine the effect on weight regardless of the supermarket travel pattern, he says.

Such "heterogeneities," or variability in how real people behave in theoretical settings, generally don't get considered in existing studies given data limitations. Important features are also missing on the supply side. For instance, supermarkets generally provide foods, including unhealthy foods, at lower prices than the alternative retail outlets, which could inadvertently increase food consumption and therefore result in weight gain.

Neither limited supermarket access nor low income has any clearly established effect on weight, Zeng concludes. Until the conflicting forces he identifies are formally analyzed, the concept of food deserts does little to guide policy-makers in preventing increasing obesity rates.

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