The Myth of the Food Desert

President Obama's new school-lunch law is a good start, but healthy eating begins at home.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Signing into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (pdf) will naturally not go down in history for President Barack Obama the way the latest tax compromise has. It’s not that hot kind of news — although it will likely have more effect on children’s daily lives than modest tax cuts. This new bill requires food served in schools, including in vending machines, to be more nutritious and gives a boost to funding for various child nutrition programs.

The take-home justification for the bill is that one in three American children is now obese, and that the problem is especially acute among the poor of all colors. To get a sense of how critical this problem is, think of this: If you grew up in the ’70s or before, you certainly remember the occasional “fat kid,” or even fat family. But today, in low- and even modest-income neighborhoods, the term is almost useless because kids we used to classify as fat are now the norm.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act appeals to us because its logic seems so clear: To make kids healthier, we change what is available for them to eat. However, we can’t help but wonder: What about what children eat when they’re not at school? Conventional wisdom has it that changing kids’ evening and weekend eating habits will also be a matter of changing their environment.

Specifically, we are taught to think that the black obesity problem is in large part a matter of societal injustice. The story goes that the rise in obesity among the poor is due to a paucity of supermarkets in inner-city areas. This factoid has quite a hold on the general conversation about health issues and the poor, for two reasons. One is that it sits easily in the memory. The other is that it corresponds to our sense that poor people’s problems are not their fault — which quite often they are not — and that reversing the problem will require undoing said injustice.

The trouble is that it is impossible to truly see a causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket when you live, for example, in New York.