Wednesday, February 1, 2012

This Whole 'Food Desert' Thing? Maybe That's Not the Problem

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 7:43 AM

click to enlarge Actually, it's not quite like this. - APDESIGN / SHUTTERSTOCK

For the past decade or so, there's been a big push to identify "food deserts" -- low-income neighborhoods and even cities that don't have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Plant markets in those deserts, the thinking has gone, and you'll improve nutrition and reduce obesity and diabetes rates. The solution seems to make sense.

And so the USDA has created nationwide maps of food deserts. Efforts to resolve them have ranged from small-scale operations like People's Grocery in West Oakland to Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, which worked out a deal with Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and SuperValu to open hundreds of new stores in targeted areas.

But maybe we're misdirecting our efforts. According to a new survey Share Our Strength conducted with low-income families, having access to fresh fruits and vegetables may not be as much of a problem as having enough time and money to cook them. 

Food journalist Jane Black looked over the Share Our Strength report. The vast majority of the people surveyed said they were quite happy with their markets. Black noticed that the families who cooked more often, and more nutritiously, had a parent who stayed at home or was unemployed. Those with more kids cooked more, and better, too. And families with more time also planned out shopping trips more carefully, and ended up with fewer preprepared foods. This jibes with another report finding that poor families don't eat as much fast food as middle-class families

As Black writes:
The data reflects what my husband, Brent Cunningham, and I saw while reporting for six months in Huntington, West Virginia. Among the families we followed, the very poorest was the one most likely to cook healthy meals at home. But it required intense planning and basic cooking skills. The families least likely to eat well were the ones who, frankly, didn't have to. They had enough money to swing by Burger King for dinner on the way home instead of cooking family meals and eating leftovers. 
Unfortunately, it's easier for government to work out a deal with grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods than to demand workers have more free time to shop and cook. Can you imagine? That'd be so ... French.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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