An idea popularized in recent years is that Americans in poor neighborhoods have woefully limited access to nutritious foods because of a lack of supermarkets. They must rely, it is assumed, on small, corner markets with limited stocks of fresh fruits and vegetables. Or they wind up at fast-food restaurants. And all that leads, at least in theory, to obesity among children and adults alike.
These areas go by the alarming label "food deserts."
Food deserts got some recent attention locally with news that a mobile market supported by some social service organizations is taking produce and other healthful foods into those areas for sale at prices comparable to those found in traditional grocery stores. The idea is to help people in the areas in question gain better access to such foods, because supermarkets have shown little interest in building in certain urban settings.
There are, of course, reasons why stores are not built in some areas. Higher crime rates drive up companies' costs in terms of inventory loss and insurance, as well as in other ways. If they can get a better return on their investment by building elsewhere, it's scarcely a surprise that they do so.
What's more, despite the hyping of the "food desert" crisis by personalities including first lady Michelle Obama, the whole concept appears to be a bit of a myth.
"[T]wo new studies have found something unexpected," the New York Times reported recently. "[Food desert] neighborhoods not only have more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.
"Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, 'you can get basically any type of food,' said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corp., lead author of one of the studies. 'Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,' he said."
That's not to say obesity in those and other areas isn't a problem. It obviously is, and it contributes to the high costs of medical care.
Neither is it to say that the local market on wheels isn't a good idea. It may provide a valuable and convenient service to quite a few Chattanoogans.
Where skepticism is called for is in the federal government's ceaseless interventions to fight obesity. Combating apparently illusory "food deserts" is part of Washington's many-faceted anti-obesity crusade. But as even the Times -- no enemy of a bigger federal government -- acknowledges, "Despite campaigns to get Americans to exercise more and eat healthier foods, obesity rates have not budged over the past decade, according to recently released federal data."
And Kelly Brownell, head of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told the newspaper, "It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores. But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking."
And wishful thinking doesn't trim waistlines.