White House Chef on Food-Desert Fight

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

David Giesbrecht/NBC/NBCU/Getty Images
David Giesbrecht/NBC/NBCU/Getty Images

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.

“That’s 10 years of a child’s life, from the day that they were born until they were 10 years old. Or from when they were 5 to 15,” said Kass. “These are the formative years of young people’s habits and tastes being developed. If the only thing that’s around them are foods that are fundamentally unhealthy and they aren’t even exposed to what a healthy diet can look like, that’s what kids become accustomed to. This is why the food-desert issue is so critical.”

The Fresh Grocer is also a success story on which Let’s Move! has modeled much of its food-desert work. Funded by a financing partnership between the state government and two Philadelphia nonprofits, collectively called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, the market is thriving, said Kass, and has brought much-needed jobs to the neighborhood. “They’re really turning a good business from shaping the business model to support the specific needs of the community,” he explained. “The grocery store also has an amplifier effect, with other businesses opening up around it.”