Debate Over First Lady’s Food Desert Fight

Blogging the Beltway: While in Chicago she talks food access, despite detractors who say that's not the problem.

Michelle Obama (Getty)
Michelle Obama (Getty)

One of the core goals of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign has been improving access to healthy, affordable food. Arguing that the poor diets of many low-income Americans are actually the result of “food deserts” — neighborhoods where fast-food joints and convenience stores serving junk food vastly outnumber grocery stores selling fresh produce — she has called for companies to invest in underserved areas.

Mrs. Obama will ring the food-desert alarm again on Tuesday during a visit to Chicago. She’s scheduled to give closing remarks at a Let’s Move! food-desert summit where mayors from around the country will share best practices for supporting communities that lack healthy food. She will also stop by a local Walgreens that recently expanded its wares to include produce and other grocery staples. The first lady caps off her hometown trip with a visit to Iron Street Urban Farms, a 7-acre site on the South Side that produces healthy, sustainable food year-round.

The Obama administration recently emphasized its own work around eliminating food deserts in its Creating Pathways to Opportunity report, which included a write-up on the Healthy Food Financing Initiative — more than $400 million to bring grocery stores and other food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities. The program’s goal is to eliminate food deserts in the next six years.

Food deserts have grown in the public consciousness and are considered by many to be health hazards that contribute to obesity and diabetes among the poor. However, skepticism has also grown about whether they’re a real problem.

A national study by the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published this summer in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that better access to supermarkets doesn’t improve people’s diets. The research, showing that the cheaper cost of fast food is preferred by people, has been cited as proof that making fruits and vegetables available in food deserts is a (pardon the pun) fruitless effort.

The Root‘s John McWhorter wrote last year that the troubles of food deserts are a “myth,” based on his similar observations in New York City, finding no “causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket.” He notes that after two years the city’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas with fresh produce, only netted one in four stores reporting more vegetables purchased. McWhorter concluded that cultural tastes steer African Americans away from healthful foods, and supermarkets won’t change that.

But none of this is surprising, says Mari Gallagher, president of the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group. The firm specializes in community development and mapping, and its landmark 2006 study on food deserts helped popularize the term nationally. “I think anytime you reach a high level with an awareness campaign or a national effort, there are going to be detractors,” Gallagher told The Root. “People try to pick this issue apart, but sure — everything in isolation won’t work. It’s not just about plopping down a grocery store. It takes a ripple effect of everything together.”

Among the range of solutions that Gallagher recommends are nutrition training, urban agriculture and getting more supermarkets into low-income neighborhoods — in tandem. She also pushes back against the idea that food deserts aren’t a big problem. Her firm’s new study (pdf) found that in Chicago alone, the food-desert population consists of nearly 384,000 residents. Of those households, 40,000 do not own cars and 70 percent are African American.

With these statistics in mind, Gallagher insists that having mainstream supermarkets in underserved communities is a must. “It’s a critical component to food access, and once you get over that hurdle then you can work on other things like the price of food and education,” she said, adding that the latter pieces are meaningless without having healthy choices available.