The Wrong Way to Tackle Food Insecurity

Sen. Mark Warner in Salem yesterday.

According to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, more than 1 million Virginians live in food deserts. To deal with the problem, he has sponsored legislation in Congress to incentivize businesses and nonprofits to provide healthy food in those areas. And he was in Salem yesterday visiting Feeding America Southwest Virginia to talk about food insecurity.

Reports the Roanoke Times:

His legislation would provide tax credits to companies that build new grocery stores or retrofit an existing store’s healthy food sections. It also would provide grants to food banks that build permanent structures or to temporary access merchants like mobile markets and farmers markets.

What is wrong with this picture? It assumes that the problem is a supply-side problem, not a demand-side problem.

For starters, the 1 million figure is exaggerated. My previous residence in a well-to-do neighborhood of Henrico County, where I lived 16 years, qualified as a food desert according to the definition provided by the Roanoke Times: a rural area not within 10 miles of a grocery store or, an urban area not within one mile of a grocer. I lived more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. But I had this thing called a car…. so I never felt nutritionally deprived. I suspect that in the sprawling, low-density suburbs of metropolitan areas, hundreds of thousands of other well-off Virginians live in “food deserts.”

Admittedly, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of Virginians living in inner cities and remote rural areas without convenient access to grocery stores. Efforts by well-meaning do-gooders to establish grocery stores with fresh vegetables and healthy food in the inner city have not ended well. The problem is that many poor people don’t eat healthy food even when it is given to them free. They don’t like how it tastes, and they don’t know how to prepare it.

If Warner wants to incentivize anything, he needs to incentivize poor people to eat healthy food. If they develop the taste for it, they will buy it, and businesses will supply it. In other words, the fight against food deserts starts with the consumer. But changing peoples’ eating habits is not an easy job. Peoples’ food preferences are extremely conservative — that is, once established, they are very hard to change. But that’s the place to start. Offering people food they won’t eat is a waste of time.

As it happens, there are nonprofit enterprises trying to address root causes. I’ve written in the past about Tricycle Gardens, which maintains community vegetable gardens in inner-city Richmond. The nonprofit offers healthy-eating cooking classes, and shows people how to raise vegetables in their own back yards. Another group in the Richmond area, Health Brigade, provides classes on the preparation and cooking of healthy food.

Here’s what else Warner could do: He could buck the lobbying efforts of Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and other food processing companies, and reform the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) so that it no longer pays for soft drinks, potato chips and other nutritionally worthless snack foods. Also, he could strengthen efforts to prevent food stamp fraud. Nearly 16,000 fraud investigations were conducted in Virginia in Fiscal 2016, mainly involving people collecting food stamps who didn’t qualify or people selling their cards for cash. The number of investigations likely reflects only a fraction of the fraud that actually occurs. Tightening up the SNAP program would leave poor people with more food-stamp dollars to pay for healthier food — should they be inclined to eat it.

Yes, we want all Americans, including poor people living in food deserts, to eat healthier food. But misdiagnosing the problem helps no one.

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18 responses to “The Wrong Way to Tackle Food Insecurity”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think it’s a GOOD thing to incentivize Food Banks myself but I’m no fan of the phrase “food insecurity” because it portrays some sense of someone being geographically marooned without access to food and that’s just not true.

    Transit ridership has cratered in recent years because most folks have a car. They NEED a car to be able to work. We no longer live where the factory is and jobs are so widely disbursed that fixed-transit no long “works”.

    I support food banks and all manner of stores and private groups that work together and coordinate their efforts to maximize the assistance but I am not in favor of multiple groups pursuing similar missions in such as way that they are competing with each other over limited resources and duplicated their efforts.

    And we don’t need to “teach” people how to “cook” and prepare foods – that’s condescending as hell … insulting. It’s true we should ALL eat “healthier” foods but the middle class and rich are no better at it than the poor – we have a ton of obese people across the income spectrum and dissing the poor selectively for THEIR food/eating “sins” borders on stereotyping and ignorance.

    Finally – the problem is not just inner city – you’ll find it in rural areas and suburbs… and the “color” of it is largely white at the food pantries I’ve seen.

  2. djrippert Avatar

    This is getting to be a typical Democratic / liberal pattern. First, deliberately misrepresent or lie about the facts. Then, use the misrepresentation / lie to argue for more wealth transfer. The Democratic Party ought to just start calling themselves the Socialist Party of America and be done with it.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    No kidding on Jim’s point about health habits …

    What percentage of smokers in the US are from the lower socio – economic and educational strata?

    Three quarters.

    Apparently, decades of anti-smoking programs just don’t sink in with some people. But Senator Mark Twain …. I mean Twit …. I mean Warner will get people to eat healthy food by just (effectively) paying merchants to offer such food. Maybe subsidize mobile Chantix distribution buses too. See … these problems are easy to fix if you just have enough of other people’s money.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      People in poor and desperate circumstances – to include soldiers at war – do smoke – yes – and they use drugs and they engage in other destructive behaviors.

      and your point?

      1. djrippert Avatar

        If people in “poor and desperate circumstances” can’t be convinced by the government to stop smoking why do you think those same people can be convinced to eat healthy food?

        Handing out tax breaks doesn’t lower government spending. Somebody else has to pay more in taxes to support the isolated tax breaks. Handing out tax breaks for a program that has failed to work in the past means Warner is either ignorant of the facts or willing to spend other people’s money to virtue signal.

  4. Acommentator Avatar

    I think this is a good,idea. Remember, many college students have to live in low rent areas. They would be looking for healthy food. Bottom line, even if most poor people wanted healthier food, if it’s not available they can’t get it. Didn’t Jack Kemp, a Republican, originate the concept of the enterprise zone?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      There usually are thriving groceries near the colleges. In Richmond look at the Kroger on Lombardy, which certainly serves several neighborhoods with lower-income residents, but also survives with the patronage of VUU and VCU students in nearby student or private housing. I’ve never seen a store with more foot traffic (although the parking lot is often jammed.)

      And Larry, the point is is fairly simple. Don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t gamble, drink moderately and odds are you might not stay poor. I doubt if any economy in the history of the world has been as successful as this one in fleecing what little revenue they have away from poor people, all in the name of freedom of choice.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    the whole idea of one group of folks “helping” others – poor or not – to eat “healthier” food in a world where fast food joints abound – everywhere INCLUDING where there are so-called food deserts…


    we should definitely inform EVERYONE about fast food and how bad it is for you – indeed… but no… we have to demonize the poor over their poor choices and eating habits while ignoring the same percentages of obesity for those who are not poor.

    It’s condescending stereotyping of those worse off than us – and why?

    what’s the purpose? The poor are not allowed the same bad habits the rich engage in?

    Come on… this is totally bogus… The “poor” know about what is good for you or not – just like the rich do. We… “WE” all make bad choices regardless of our income levels. … and we don’t need to be looking down our noses at anyone.. every income group has it’s issues.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      What is it about this statement that you don’t, won’t or can’t understand …

      “Efforts by well-meaning do-gooders to establish grocery stores with fresh vegetables and healthy food in the inner city have not ended well. The problem is that many poor people don’t eat healthy food even when it is given to them free. They don’t like how it tastes, and they don’t know how to prepare it.”

      Warner’s program costs money. Tax breaks to one group get made up by higher taxes on another group.

      Other than virtue signaling by Warner … what’s the point?

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    “They don’t like how it tastes, and they don’t know how to prepare it.”

    Well, that’s a totally ignorant statement, based on I’m sure zero observational evidence. How do you know, Jim? I will accept that many working folks, single parents don’t have a lot of spare time, and cooking is a time consuming activity. Prepared meals and fast food are easier, more convenient, and the stores know that and push them, hard.

    I don’t know the grocery business. The real problem here is Jim’s favorite topic of land use patterns, with too many areas of concentrated poverty, and another favorite topic – the pathetic public transit systems in most American cities. A lot of complaints about lingering racism are bogus, but no question why large swaths of the Richmond region don’t want public transit. Go to Europe and the contrasts are stunning.

    But I also suspect grocery stores just wanna make money, and even if a low-income family shops there constantly, it will not spend as much as a middle or high income family and it will not spend as much on high margin items. It will be ground beef, not steak, bulk vegetables, not a prepackaged salad, the lowest-cost items when available. Given a fixed amount of capital, the capital will go where it gets the best return. I don’t like Warner’s idea, but he is one of the sharper knives in the drawer and he is trying to change that equation.

    1. “They don’t like how it tastes, and they don’t know how to prepare it.” Well, that’s a totally ignorant statement, based on I’m sure zero observational evidence. How do you know, Jim?

      I know this because groups like Tricycle Gardens and Health Brigade are grappling with these very issues. They spend good money on educational outreach to change the way people eat.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Jim is like an old hound. His nose still picks up the scent of reality but sometimes he gets confused by the direction of the smell.

      Soul food and BBQ are:

      a) considered desirable within the inner city (and rural areas)
      b) cheap, especially if you make it yourself
      c) healthy if you make some basic choices (sorry mac and cheese)
      d) delicious … in my considered and experienced opinion (yeah, chitterlings too)

      The problem is that both soul food and BBQ are pains in the ass to properly prepare. Many types of inexpensive foods can be made into delicious meals but not easily or quickly. For example, my pulled pork recipe requires 10 hours of cooking. So, a person who travels a long way from the inner city to the suburbs and works long hours before returning home probably doesn’t have the time to make a good pot of inexpensive collard greens.

      As far as knowing how to cook healthy, inexpensive foods … that may be a problem especially for younger folks. My collard green recipe took years to get right. Leave out a source of fat (fat back, bacon, smoked turkey leg) and those greens just aren’t going to taste very good.

      Bottom line – Warner should be giving tax breaks to food trucks selling pre-cooked healthy food that operate in so-called food deserts. Pick up a rotisserie roasted chicken and a quart of collard greens on the way home.

  7. Junk food comes in near indestructible packages, requires no refrigeration, has a sell-by date sometime deep into the next geologic era, and provides a high profit margin. Fresh vegetables? High maintenance, low margins, and those darned health inspectors checking quality and cleanliness and storage all the time. If you were running a convenience store from behind a bullet- proof shield, what would you stock your store with? Come on, guys, why is it so hard to figure this out? Demand be damned, the merchants have little incentive to provide good food options; I applaud MW for talking about what can be done, even if I don’t agree with the direction of his solution.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Kind of. So, why do the merchants outside of the so-called food deserts provide items like collard greens for sale? Why wouldn’t a grocery store in Chesterfield County steal an idea from the merchants behind bullet proof glass and sell only high margin goods too? Isn’t it because people would stop coming to the store if the store stopped selling healthy food and only sold candy bars, chips and beer? These stores do sell candy bars, chips and beer but they also sell pork butt and collard greens.

      There are people in the inner city who will buy packs of cigarettes and repackage the cigarettes into mini-bundles of two or three. By the time they sell all the mini-bundles they’ve made more than the cost of the pack. Entrepreneurism is alive and well in the inner city. If people were demanding collard greens there would be somebody selling collard greens.

  8. “Warner should be giving tax breaks to food trucks selling pre-cooked healthy food that operate in so-called food deserts.”

    Good idea! Wish I had thought of it.

  9. DLunsford Avatar

    Whoa, really had to do a double take on that one. Salem Virginia? Seriously? Not exactly your east-coast Inner-city Poverty Plantation. But only a few hours away for a NoVA politico in need of a photo op.

    If you can’t find fresh produce (in season of course) in that part of the Shenandoah Valley then shame on you! Even from the real inner-city side of things, a lot of this “food desert” debate is SJW drivel. Fresh healthy food requires planning and preparation usually by a competent, motivated adult that is home long enough to do it. I bet you could give a CSA share to every low income household in the area and still not compete with cheap and easy SAD fast-food. It’s not just about access.

    A lot of it comes down to education and the motivation to take on a lifestyle change. If it were as easy as supply there would be no obesity epidemic and everyone would have a victory garden and chickens on the back lot.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Thanks for your sense. This story is drivel. A US senator drives down to Salem Va. to lecture Virginia citizens on how they must eat green peas. Really, is this what American democracy has come to in Virginia? Maybe we ought to suggest that young Americans get a good job and get married before they have children, then stick around long enough to raise a family and go to church, and teach their kids to do the same, and look after each other. You think that would take care of the green pea problem, without a lecture of from nosy US senator looking for votes and another way to interfere in people’s lives?

  10. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    Instead of bricks and mortar, a mobile green grocer in conjunction with prepared “healthy” food would cost less and enable the proponents to see if the concept is feasible. “Kale to go” could follow its market and reach people with few transportation options at a reasonable cost and tweak its offerings to meet demand.

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