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.
"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."
In 2010 the Obama administration rolled out a national version of the program called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Funded by pooled resources from the departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, the project provides grants, low-interest loans and new-market tax credits to food retailers and community-development financial institutions to increase access to healthy, affordable food in underserved neighborhoods.
Yet the HFFI, which started out with $35 million in discretionary funding, hit a snag when the project's request for $298 million in the 2012 budget was met with a far lower amount — just $32 million appropriated by Congress. "The program is still moving along in an incredibly effective way," said Kass, explaining that through New Markets Tax Credit awards, allocated by the Treasury Department for community revitalization, they have generated more than $400 million toward the effort.
Pushback From the Left
In addition, last year a coalition of food corporations including Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and Save-a-Lot pledged to build or expand 1,500 stores in food deserts within five years. According to the companies, these locations will serve 9.5 million people. The California Endowment, a private health foundation, is also working with private and public partners to expand healthy food projects throughout the state.
The largest partners in the Let's Move! campaign have been private food retailers, especially mega-chain Wal-Mart — an approach that has drawn more criticism, this time from the political left. Food-justice activists, for example, argue that big corporations only drive smaller retailers and farmers out of business.
"Wal-Mart is still the retail giant that exploits its workers and suppliers to undercut all other competition," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch. "All communities, especially those that are struggling financially, will be better served for the long term by local businesses that put money back into the community by paying livable wages and buying from local and regional suppliers and farmers whenever possible."
"The first major thing the first lady did in this effort was to plant a garden at the White House — the first major garden there since the 1890s," Kass continued. "She also helped to support the opening of a farmers market two blocks away from the White House, which takes SNAP [food stamp] benefits. The USDA's also working hard to ensure that more and more farmers markets will be able to take SNAP to help improve access to healthy food [for] low-income families."
A Goal in Sight
Between these combined efforts, Kass says the Let's Move! campaign is on its way to reaching its ambitious goal of eliminating food deserts by 2017. "We've made significant progress, and communities are also taking this challenge on as they realize what's at stake," he said. "I see stories all over the place, of faith leaders, and community members and city councils, who are grappling with this on their own accord. I feel confident that we are going to continue making significant, dramatic progress toward that goal."
As for the criticism that continues to plague the initiative — that it's government intrusion into private family decisions, or, in light of that New York Times piece, a trivial pursuit — Kass is equally unconcerned. "I think there were attempts to paint this effort as something that it's not. This is a bipartisan effort that has support from all sectors of society," he said, adding that everybody has a stake when one in three Americans are on track to have diabetes by 2050 if nothing changes.
"We're not worried about people who make offhand comments," Kass said. "We are working tirelessly on behalf of families and kids across the country, and we keep our eyes and efforts focused on that."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.