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Food deserts: Just a mirage?

Food deserts. If you've listened to this show before, you've heard about them. And they've become the source of some controversy this week. They're places in the country where grocery stores and fresh food are hard to come by.

Just last week actually, Tess talked to actor Wendell Pierce about his plan to open grocery stores in New Orleans Ninth Ward. But there's some new research that says what we think we know about these food deserts is all wrong.

"The problem that we all have, we have this expectation. We've heard so much that if you go into a poor, urban neighborhood, you're not going to find any place to find fresh fruits and vegetables," New York Times' Gina Kolata said to Marketplace Money fill-in host Adriene Hill.

Kolata recently sifted through those studies in a recent article, which concluded there isn't a consistent relationship between obesity rates and the number of grocery stores in a neighborhood. Past studies focus on just one area, and it is impossible to generalize the entire nation's poor neighboorhoods through those studies. Kolata pointed out that her own neighborhood -- affluent Princeton, N.J. -- is technically a food desert; she would have to drive at least 15 minutes to get to the nearest grocery store.

These recent studies -- two national and one California based -- were very rigorous, Kolata said. They measured everything from the size and number of outlets to what is available in them.

The findings of these studies may force researchers and policymakers to re-think how they tackle the obesity epidemic, Kolata said. One researcher she spoke to told her that it's not simply a matter of putting more fruits and vegetables into the neighborhoods. A better -- although impractical -- solution would be remove the junk food that is in them.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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You made light of food deserts again in your 4/27 - blows me away.

You must shop with Mitt's personal shopping assistant.

You're out of touch, I'm out of time. #fail

Re: the comments to the article on food deserts from residents of Princeton, NJ. The offended residents only glossed over the matter. Yes, there is a grocery called McCaffrey's but it is very expensive and carries mostly the smaller sizes of staples. Yes, there is an organic store called Whole Earth but it is NOT on the main street, but rather is on the road that becomes the main drag of downtown Princeton. The big box stores of Route One are a much longer bus ride away. Like all enclaves of privilege, Princeton requires a car and lots of cash to eat well. I have lived here for 17 years and still drive out of town to shop.

The phrase "food desert" doesn't refer to the quantity of food that's available, rather it refers to the quality of food available. Unlike 40 to 50 years ago, many poor neighborhoods don't have easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and, many of the people there don't have a car to drive to the stores that do.

The best many can manage is a one or two hour bus-ride to the nearest grocery to buy only as much as you and your children can carry for the trip back.

Ms. Kolata's 'research' or interpretation of the research is clearly flawed. I also, live in an 'affluent' neighborhood with the nearest grocery store a 15 minute drive. I also frequently travel to the inner city of Chicago - both West and South Sides. I know for a FACT the food choices in terms of quality, value, variety are grossly different between my neighborhood and those of the inner city. Yes, one may find an occasional grocery store - Walmart, Jewel - but it's not within walking distance for most of the residents. And, if you don't have a car or convenient public transportation to get you there and back (with groceries) you're out of luck. Also from personal experience I know when I compare the price of the same food in the same chain, the price is always higher. Question the store management about this phenomenon and the magic word 'shrinkage' is touted as the reason for the price difference.

Ms. Kolata's comments were elitist and offensive!! Let her do some real life 'research'. Talk to folks who live in these communities as well as health care professionals who serve them.

I also did not appreciate Ms. Hill's reaction (laughter) when Ms. Kolata stated 'I live in a food desert'. Did she not hear or grasp how offensive/insensitive/ supercilious this sounded??

Poor reporting indeed.

I just wanted to second these comments. I found Ms. Kolata's remark that she lives in a food desert to be cruel and poorly thought out. The Marketplace reporter should have challenged her rather than agreeing that her experience in Princeton is comparable with an urban food desert.

If you've ever visited such an environment, Ms. Kolata's comments would make you cringe (It sounds like it did have this effect on several listeners). I would add that East Baltimore, while not highlighted on the USDA Food Locator Map (which cites several other poor Baltimore neighborhoods), is a good example. There are no grocery stores for miles and fast food chains are the primary source of sustenance: residents choose from Popeyes, Burger King, and mom and pop shops selling fried food. More than 1/3 of the residents in Baltimore do not own cars, and can not, as Kolata implied was universally possible, simply drive to a grocery store.

Perhaps the reporter meant to draw out of Ms. Kolata the fact that the data aren't yet solid enough to make conclusions about why people living in poorer urban areas tend to be overweight and obese, and what the relationship is with the food environment or other parts of the built environment (access to transit, parks, etc.).

Rather than agree that a wealthy, elite New Jersey town was comparable to a poor urban neighborhood, the Marketplace reporter might have done better to invite on a scientist studying food access to defend his or her notion that food deserts exist.

I have to agree with the commenters below - try being POOR, car-less, and, eating good. I am the first, I was the second, and I sorta managed to do the later.
In the process, I ended up weighing, what - 95lbs at most - having acquaintences give me, unbidden, clothes that were from the little boy's department. I also went to the ER several times during this period(with things like low sodium, anemia, pneumonia, etc.), blew out several disks in my neck (from carrying milk and the like).
Excuse me, but, Princeton - the "low income" folks are "just" two mi away from McCafferys (whatever)? Well, you try it. Go to McCaffery's, get out of your car, buy your groceries, walk two miles, and walk back to your car. I am sure by the time you drive home from McC's, you will be really up to washing, slicing, dicing, sauteeing. Oh, and do not use your dishwasher. Oh, and do your laundry at a laundromat (on foot). Try it for a week.
And Wild Oats/Wholefoods? Oh, please.
Nevermind the logistics - it is just exhausting living that way.
I wish I would have gone for the cheap calories of McDonalds. I probably would have fared better, health-wise. I just hate that kind of food.
I am sorry for the tone, but I find the obtusidity offensive. Just TRY to imagine what it may be like NOT to be....
...nevermind that...try to imagine trying to negotiate life without the luxury of NOT constantly thinking about price/cost, about the reality of living in the "low income" area of P-town, presumably without wheels (and all that entails...weather-stuff/logistics).

Me. I ruined my perfect credit score, by using my stupid cards to buy a very cheap, used car so I could get a job (which I was trying to do anyways)...but that was so unrealistic. I did get a few jobs, but those darn blown discs (and all the nerve pain associated with it) interfered with every job I got. I was "permantently disabled" before. Now I am ruined. But, thanks Visa!, at least I can drive to my docs.

Perhaps this story should have mentioned "the authors' own admissions of limited sample size and use of sometimes unreliable data" (from the Chicago Tribune, 4/19/2012). Use of sometimes unreliable data runs rather counter to Kolata's assertion the three studies she cited were "very rigorous". Perhaps that word does not mean what she thinks it means.

Kolata misrepresented the availability, variety, accessibility and healthiness of food in Princeton. Princeton borough has a large grocery store, McCaffrey's, which is easily accessible by foot, bike or auto. There is a senior citizen community across the street from Mc Caffrey's and a low income community just a short distance down the road. On the main street in Princeton is Wild Oats grocery. This is a large health food store which also carries fresh foods. Wild Oats is on the main street in Princeton and has discounts for customers who walk or bike. If this basic information was misrepresented by Kolata, it makes me wonder if other information that she presented was incorrect or misrepresented.

The most salient point from this research is that poor urban neighborhoods have a greater density of fast food outlets, convenience stores and corner stores. Access is also influenced by sophisticated marketing techniques, that include children as targets. Add to this parents' lack of transportation to easily move bags of groceries over a few miles. When was the last time you did your grocery shopping without your car?

The research also fails to mention poor, isolated rural communities that are not on the fresh fruit and vegetable distribution grid; or that consume quantities too small to attract product at a reasonable price.

Public health is science driven and welcomes research that competes with existing tenets. However, a body of knowledge grows slowly, so I look forward to other responses to this research.

Focusing on food is starting at the wrong end, figuratively and literally. If the ultimate goal is better health (not just a New Slender You) then the first focus should be on exercise and sunlight.

Exercise has a way of shaping everything else. After you get onto the 'addiction' of moving your body, other addictions or impulses tend to fade back just a bit!

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