White House Chef on Food-Desert Fight

Sam Kass, Obama's healthy-food adviser, deflects criticism of his quest for healthier communities.

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David Giesbrecht/NBC/NBCU/Getty Images

Last month a front-page story in the New York Times emphasized two studies that appeared to challenge the notion that food deserts -- districts with limited or no access to affordable and nutritious foods, yet rich in stores hawking junk food -- are a real problem. The studies, recently published in the journals Social Science & Medicine and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that building more supermarkets in poor urban communities is an ineffective response to the epidemic of childhood obesity. Despite campaigns over the past decade to improve community access to fresh produce and other healthy foods, the data show that obesity rates have not budged.

One such campaign that focuses on fresh-food access in underserved neighborhoods is first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative, launched in 2010 with a pledge to eradicate all U.S. food deserts within seven years. Right-wing critics of the first lady pounced on the Times story, which also noted that many poor neighborhoods have plenty of grocery stores, as indisputable proof that food deserts are a make-believe issue and Let's Move! a waste of time and money.

Yet Sam Kass, the White House senior policy adviser for healthy-food initiatives (who also serves double duty as White House assistant chef), notes some holes in the premise.

For one, the administration does not think that all poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, in the first place. While many high-poverty communities do in fact have healthy options, the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- which defines a food desert as an area where at least 33 percent of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocer in an urban area (the distance is more than 10 miles in a rural area) -- has identified 6,500 underserved areas across the country. Furthermore, public health advocates and policymakers have long viewed improving food access as just one approach to combating obesity. It's never been about just plopping down grocery stores and calling it a day, as the Times article implies.

"At the heart of Let's Move! is providing families with the information they need to make the best choices that they can for their kids," Kass told The Root. "But for parents living in areas that have very limited or no access to healthy or affordable food, where families have to shop at gas stations and corner stores to feed their families, the notion of choice simply doesn't mean anything to them."

Kass pointed out that numerous other studies show a link between living in underserved areas and poor health outcomes. A recent report that also ran in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a clear association between neighborhoods with nearby supermarkets and lower childhood obesity rates.

"Is the only thing we need to do is get healthy foods in neighborhoods at an affordable price? If we did only that, would that solve our problem? Absolutely not," said Kass. "But do we know that it's a key component of a comprehensive solution? Absolutely."

One Piece of the Puzzle

Kass cites other pillars of the Let's Move! campaign -- including nutrition education, encouraging physical activity and working on all of these issues from early childhood -- as examples of further interventions that are needed to change people's habits for the better.

To illustrate the complexity of the puzzle, he described the Fresh Grocer, a 46,000-square-foot supermarket in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia. When Michelle Obama launched Let's Move! she visited the market, which opened in 2009 after the community had gone 10 years without a grocery store.

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