One of the latest "topics du jour" that this blog aims to cover is "food deserts", which involves a high obesity rate in poor areas with no grocery stores and only convenience stores. The theory is that without access to real supermarkets, the poor rely on convenience stores with their less-than-healthy fare to supply people calories.
Now, before you demand that supermarkets start building in poor neighborhoods (and try that without some controversial gentrification), I want to inform you of something.
It's not a problem.
Or rather, it's not a "access to better food" problem. It can be broken down into three distinct categories:
1. It's partially bad statistics
While obesity and poverty and lack of real grocery stores are definitely linked, you can't assume that all of these are actual correlations of each other. You should know about lurking and confounding variables, even if you haven't taken a statistics class.
Even in disadvantaged areas, there's a Walmart Supercenter, which despite not being a great grocery store, does sell real food. Before someone cries "food desert" and demands something be done, a few things must be considered:
- What's the obesity/poverty rate in places that do have real grocery stores?
- Where do people in the neighborhood actually go for food?
- Why do people in rural areas (with no convenience stores either) who or may not be poor not as focused on? Are they more or less obese?
2. The single parent problem
Since most of the poor "food desert" neighborhoods in question are predominantly African-American, it should be noted what other problems there are. It isn't a racial issue, but on average, single mothers make a little more than a quarter to what married couples do, and the "father disappearance" especially hits blacks disproportionately. Therefore, even assuming the best of circumstances, if a mother wants to feed her kids, she often works two jobs (or one job and community college classes), leaving her little time or energy to cook.
A traditional two-parent household, as has worked in decades before, allows one person to be the breadwinner while the other (typically the mother) can cook and feed the family. Unfortunately, with traditional families and marriage rates dropping, we have this problem nowadays.
This issue of time and money cannot be easily fixed with food stamps nor an alimony paycheck, or even giving incentives for convenience stores to stock healthier items (like produce). Given a full-line grocery store that has lower prices (think H-E-B for those south of Dallas, and certainly Walmart for everywhere else), anyone with wanting to feed mouths with a serious shortage of time will run straight for those frozen meals like Stouffer's and the others. It happens in wealthier families, too (same concept), so in this case it could just be, instead of pre-packaged food, even cheaper pre-packaged foods, like burritos that I can buy three for a dollar.
Even if you disagree with the single parent problem and that it could be overcome, there's one more concept of why food deserts are a problem but not for lack of grocery stores:
3. Bad education will kill (via obesity)
OK, here's one for you. Three McDonald's cheeseburgers, priced at roughly a dollar apiece, vs. a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread.
Which one is cheaper overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which is healthier overall? The peanut butter sandwiches. Which one is better for your money? The peanut butter sandwiches.
But unfortunately, because home economics is only sometimes not offered and often not required, these types of things will win out. While grocery stores do offer this sort of things at a cheaper price, the bread and peanut butter could still be found at a comparable price (in terms of home economics) at any given convenience store. In most convenience stores I've visited, you could find basic staples: bread, condiments, cereal, sardines...it's there, if you can resist the siren sound of the candy, soda, or beer.
And that's what I think: the food desert problem materialized out of nowhere built largely on some bad statistics and seemingly a war on convenience stores. Leave a comment if you agree, disagree, or just want to talk.