Fixing Food Deserts Won’t Fix Food Insecurity

by James A. Bacon

Speaking of food…food_desert there’s new research out on the differences in diet and nutrition between different socioeconomic groups. The conventional wisdom is that a major factor explaining the gap in nutritional quality between affluent and poor Americans is the difficulty poor people have in accessing fresher, healthier food — the food desert phenomenon.

Using new data sets unavailable to previous researchers, Jessie Handbury, Molly Schnell and Ilya Rahkovsky were able to hone in food-buying practices of poor and affluent shoppers in the same grocery store. They found that the same patterns prevailed  — affluent people buy healthier, more nutritious food than poor people do.

“Our results indicate that improving access to healthy foods alone will do little to close the gap in the nutritional quality of grocery purchases across different socioeconomic groups,” they write in “What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases across the Socioeconomic Spectrum,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Improving the concentration and nutritional quality of stores in the average low-income and low-education neighborhood to match those of the average high-income and high-education neighborhood would only close the gap in nutritional consumption across these groups by 1-3%.”

The authors suggest that two other variables are at play: the price of food and consumer preferences for certain kinds of food over others. Their research did not indicate the relative importance of those factors played in influencing food purchases.

Bacon’s bottom line: Once food preferences are established, it is very difficult to change them. That’s not to say it can’t be done — If I learned to like brocolli and brussel sprouts, for cryin’ out loud, anybody can change their food preferences — but it is a long, slow process. The problem is compounded by the fact that the food preferred by the poor — loaded with salt, fat and sugar — is engineered to taste better than healthy foods. And it’s compounded yet again by the fact is that many Americans across the income spectrum have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook healthy foods. Educated Americans acquire that knowledge by watching cooking channels, buying cook books, and exposing themselves to new foods at finer restaurants. Those options are less available to the poor.

Spending money to induce grocery stores to locate in food deserts and stock their shelves with nutritious food is a fool’s errand. Grocers won’t stock shelf space with food that no one buys. Conversely, if poor people (a) showed a strong preference for nutritious food and (b) could afford to buy it, grocers would need no prodding — they would supply what the customer demanded.

The lousy nutrition of America’s poor is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. To change how America eats, the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.

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20 responses to “Fixing Food Deserts Won’t Fix Food Insecurity”

  1. LarryG – an ellipsis … very provocative. You beg Bacon to continue his dissertation. Brilliant!

    1. larryg Avatar

      well was hoping others would comment . though I did have thoughts but not particularly positive… if you put their premise in a wider scale than inner city US poor – it starts to fall apart.. but I was not going to pay $5 to see their methodology.

      it feels like more stereotyping to me… ” you can lead a poor ignorant to good food but you can’t make him eat it… “, eh?


  2. larryg Avatar

    I get kind of whatchikated when I read this logic – which Jim has delved into a few times…before and here’s why:

    Jim concludes ” … the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.”

    hmm…. change? holy moly… who would deign to do such a thing, the govt? Lord!

    seems totally out of character for the man who has repeatedly voiced frustration – opposition to the “nanny state” or gawd forbid, more regulations so WHO would “counsel” the poor and stupid?

    have to ask if this is about obesity… because it seems regardless of demographics, the US has more of a problem of people eating too much than eating unhealthy food per se.

    and of course – we all take those nasty top-down govt regulations for mandatory nutrition labels on food – for granted.

    Jim is a great guy…and much appreciated – seriously – but he has been known to go down some rabbit holes from time to time and we have to help him.

    1. LarryG writes, “Jim concludes ” … the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat. … Seems totally out of character for the man who has repeatedly voiced frustration – opposition to the “nanny state.”

      Larry, you are a slave to your own preconceptions. Whenever LarryG sees a social problem, his mental processes default to the proposition that “government” must address it. I don’t make that default judgment. In this case, when I say “we” need to do something, I mean that we need to do something acting as individuals and collectively through civil society. I realize that civil society — people working cooperatively and voluntarily with one another to achieve common aims — is an alien concept to you, Larry, but it’s one you should acquaint yourself with!!!!

      1. At the risk of agreeing with LarryG …

        I see no issue with the government requiring the listing of nutritional information (at least calories) on restaurant menus. I used to fly the United red eye back from Seattle often. My last stop before boarding was the Burger King in the terminal. One day Washington State started requiring that calories be disclosed on menus. Now, I always knew Burger King was a poor nutritional choice overall. I just never realized how bad it was! Yikes. I made it a habit to grab some crab legs or a salad before I left for the airport.

        In New York they do the same thing. I go to a Morton’s and a waiter hands me the menu. However, at the Mortons’ in New York the calories are listed. Turns out a double cut pork chop is considerably lower in calories than any of the steaks. The other white meat I guess.

        Requiring nutritional disclosure in restaurants seems like a legitimate function of government to me.

      2. larryg Avatar

        re” use of the collective “we” by Jim Bacon without making clear who “we” are.

        tighten it up Jim… I’m NOT in favor of govt or anyone else telling people how to eat – but I especially find the idea that only the poor need “counseling”.

        Steve and Don got it right.

        come back Jim and tell us who “we” is

  3. ElSidd Avatar

    Here is yet another chance for you to shine forth with real solution(s).
    Why do you suppose FLOTUS’ school lunch program was/is a failure?

    1. larryg Avatar

      I don’t see a problem with the FLOTUS backing a good cause. Ever FLOTUS since Lady Bird did it. So I have no problem with it and especially so not a partisan one like some seem to have.

      If you want to criticize the FLOTUS – for weighing in on issues – then please treat all of them the same. DO you even know what Lady Bird, or Nancy Reagan or Laura Bush chose for their advocacy? Is it the first lady choosing an advocacy that ticks you off or just the first lady’s you don’t like?

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I’m going to challenge the basic premise behind this, because it is hardly just low income people who are eating poorly, rushing toward obesity, living sedentary lives and facing diabetes and heart disease. Plenty of solidly middle class individuals are, well, pretty damn solid around the middle. And the wealthy. Talk to anyone in the medical profession and they will tell you this epidemic is not limited to certain economic or cultural groups. And it is a real epidemic.

    It’s the sugar. And the simple carbs which quickly convert to sugar (white bread, potatoes.) The lack of exercise is a big part of the problem, but mainly it’s the ubiquitous sugar in processed foods, foods which are pushed on kids starting at birth and are now the basis of school lunches. And most of what I’ve learned about this I learned in the last two years, thanks to a local diet and nutrition program we joined. I’m hardly poor and I shop at good stores but I too was just ignorant.

    Ignore the grocery stores. Check out the school lunch rooms. If there is a higher incidence of bad nutritional practice in poor neighborhoods, look at the nature of the free food being passed out in the schools (which of course now includes breakfast and even summertime in many areas.)

    1. Steve, True, overweight and obesity is a society-wide problem but it skews heavily toward lower-income Americans. Why would that be? Food deserts account for a tiny part of the explanation. As the authors of the study found, affluent and poor Americans frequenting the same store purchased different kinds of foods. That leaves personal preference and affordability as the most likely explanation for the difference.

      In my personal observation, affordability is undoubtedly a factor. All other things being equal, I would eat organic food over non-organic. But rarely am I willing to pay a price premium for organic. I would surmise that poor people are even more sensitive to price. That said, personal preference has got to be a factor as well. Poor people may be purchasing the cheap, generic brand of cookies, soft drinks and snacks because they’re cheaper. But if personal preference for that kind of food weren’t a factor, they wouldn’t be spending money on cookies, soft drinks or snacks at all — they’d be spending their limited budgets on nutritious food!

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Please. Eating well, buying and cooking real food, is far cheaper than filling your cabinet with processed junk or going to restaurants, even if you buy off the dollar menu. Sure, the organic label adds to the price, but regular non-organic chicken is still the far better choice than Chicken Nuggets laden with breading and fried in fat. You do have a point that many people may have never learned how to cook (or didn’t add that to their checklist when picking a mate!)

  5. Jason Avatar

    “The lousy nutrition of America’s poor is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. To change how America eats, the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.”

    It’s more complicated than that. The demand is not as much for sugary, high fat, high salt foods as it is for cheap, easily accessible food. Cheap, easily accessible food is corn, rice, wheat, and other subsidized commodities. These products have no real taste (unless you find rice cakes and cornstarch packing peanuts delicious), so you have to salt and sugar them up to make them edible (thankfully, salt and sugar are also subsidized and/or easy to produce in labs). It would be wonderful if we could feed the world on meat, broccoli and fruit but these things are much more expensive to produce and process, and also consume many more resource (land, water, livestock food) themselves.

    Our entire global society is built on this system, and it is intricately connected to our energy, investment, water management, defense, and other core systems, so changing it would have to be a long, painful, and ultimately top-down process, with winners and losers. This is why, despite mountains of research and ideas about ways to fix the problem (anti-globalization, local production and control, ending subsidies for agriculture, population stabilization, adding the environmental costs into food, increasing standards of living, getting govt out of the food business entirely) there is not much real hope for the foreseeable future. Like many of society’s greatest challenges, sadly, this one will probably have to get worse before it gets better.

    1. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      I agree with your post. It’s hard to ignore the subsidization of certain crops/commodities. It’s also difficult to ignore just how much power the restaurant industry has in this nation. Obviously, those who hawk food have an interest in consumers eating more, more, more…..

      And none of this would be easy. Most assuredly, you would need the federal gov’t to take strong action. Go ask your average family medicine general practitioner how many people ever “exercise more or eat better foods” after they give the advice. I’d wager $20.00 that 90% of their patients either disregard the advice or follow it for less than a month.

      Obviously, one can take things to the extreme, but take a look at smoking. For years and years and years, the tobacco industry fought the idea that nicotine was “addictive”, even setting up their own “research institute” to prove that smoking was a “choice.” Finally, in the late 90s, even the staunchest “libertarian” types gave in as even House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that nicotine was addictive. Now, it’s hard to find anyone (outside of the most radical Tea Party kooks) who dispute that nicotine is addictive. Once a consensus was reached that nicotine was addictive, people’s opinions on smoking changed fairly rapidly…once they realized that smoking wasn’t a “choice” to many but a product of manufacturer manipulation aimed to “hook” people, most started to view the tobacco companies with a much different eye.

      I think we’ll finally see some change on this issue when a consensus forms that a lot of process foods aren’t a choice, but rather, the manufacturers manipulate the ingredients to make them addictive. Most elites (left and right) accept this now, but most of the populace doesn’t. Until we reach a point that most of American society feels that food processors are manipulating addictions, I don’t know that we’ll see much of any change.

    2. Richard Avatar

      I agree it’s much more complicated than the supply/demand economics we learned in Econ 101. The subsidies for milk, corn and sugar all make that fast food cheeseburger and sugary and carbohydrate-heavy snacks cheaper and more profitable than healthier food. The calories from the subsidized foods are cheaper. Not only are the subsidized foods more profitable, they are addictive. The market is distorted by government support for certain agricultural interests. If you’re going to subsidize big ag, doesn’t it seem fair that you might consider subsidizing small ag – the local grocery store, the local farmer?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Not only is it clear now that nicotine is addictive and smoking can kill you, but the U.S. Government played a major role in addicting people by putting cigarettes in military rations. I stand by my suggestion, ignore the grocery stores and examine the school lunch rooms. This obesity epidemic is only a couple of decades old.

        1. larryg Avatar

          yeah but Steve they ALSO put …. SPAM in those rations!

          Okay – I think KNOWLEDGE about what is in the things you consume is the specific as well as the percentage is something most of us would not have – if it were not for govt.

          we sort of take for granted that role in drugs….

          but then the cigarette companies argued long and hard – it was not the role of the govt to inform people – that it was up to people to decide and that even included if the Cigarette companies actually LIED -it was still a buyer beware with no govt – concept.

          The cigarette manufactures position did not fall right away. it was a decades long pitched battle where scientists were attacked.

          The same thing was repeated with the removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

          Now days -even the most virulent anti-regs run like hell when you ask them about cigarettes and leaded gas and other regulated substances. None of them try to make the argument that the reg was wrong and needs to be rolled back… none…

          when it comes to food – not dangerous substances – but just food -that if too much is eaten – or too much of some of the ingredients is eaten – i.e . fat, salt, etc.. we NOW KNOW it can – and DOES lead to disease, expensive health conditions – and death – Type II Diabetes and Cardiovascular damage.

          so where am I going with this?

          to tell the truth .. I’m not sure.. but I do think the govt has “warned” us – out the wazoo – and I’m opposed to the govt crossing that line between warning and “thou shalt”.

          when it comes to kids in school – I’m more ambivalent – because kids will do things that will hurt themselves if not properly guided.

  6. larryg Avatar

    I don’t think mixing up govt policy with regard to subsidies – with people’s eating habits is logical.

    People eat too much. They know it . Blaming it on “addictive food” or govt tax and subsidy policies is just not reasonable in my view.

    but I also don’t think it’s reasonable to implicate the poor as having personal “discipline” problems that makes them more responsible for the effects of bad choices than.. those not poor.. that’s almost offensive in it’s thinking in my view but just as bad – it goes off on a useless tangent on what the real issues are…. and I truly don’t understand how some get to that premise.

  7. larryg Avatar

    If there is going to be a message – it should be ‘ we should ALL eat healthier” and we’d lay out what “healthier” means.

    I think when we differentiate messages to single out the poor as needing a message different from or not given to the non-poor – we need to be damn careful about it.

    We do not want a system that is perceived to have different rules for the poor and those rules based on perceived flaws inherent in the way the poor live or think.

    So I do wince when I see anything that seems to tread in that direction.

    I keep saying – we are ALL – IGNORANT – just on different subjects. Do not confuse IGNORANT with dumb or stupid – it means uninformed, i.e.
    “lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact”

    it does not just afflict the poor – and that’s especially so for what we consume , not only food, but drugs, supplements, etc.

    And yes -you can eat “healthy” by going to a Subway rather than a Burger King – but if you get a foot-long with as much other stuff on it as you can lather on – it’s not “better” – you just convinced yourself of something more “feel good” than substantiative.

    Here’s my bottom line with all due respect and apologies to Jim:

    Most of us eat too much – and it don’t matter whether we are poor or not.

    If we addressed that one issue – alone – and forgot all the other crap about eating “healthy” – we’d make huge inroads to the problem.

    and this is not some pie-in-sky idea either. Look at other countries – like Norway – where the populace is way less obese and as a result able to be more active.. ride bikes.. walk a lot, etc.

    So – that should be our number 1 goal in K-12 school in my view -is to instill a sense that eating too much – leads to unhealthy outcomes… and make that one of the lifelong habits (like reading) that kids learn and adopt.

    As per my usual – I almost always try to give an alternative approach to what I am arguing against.. and that’s the case here.. :

    don’t target the poor for “advice” – target all of us – and the poor will come along with the rest of us… and will do so without resentment

    personal responsibility…

  8. […] a column last week, James Bacon, who writes the Bacon’s Rebellion blog, argued people who frequent corner stores in urban areas aren’t interested in the tomatoes and […]

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