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Food deserts: Just a mirage?

Adriene Hill Apr 20, 2012

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.

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