Friday, July 22, 2011

"Food Deserts": A boon for the corporate food system?

Big Retailers Make Pledge of Stores for ‘Food Deserts’By SEAN COLLINS WALSH
WASHINGTON — Executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and other stores joined Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to announce a pledge to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in communities that have limited access to nutritious food and are designated as “food deserts.” 
With the pledges, secured by the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the stores aim to reach 9.5 million of the 23.5 million Americans who live in areas where finding affordable healthy foods can be difficult. In those areas, many people turn to fast food restaurants or convenience stores. 
“The commitments that you all are making today have the potential to be a game changer,” Mrs. Obama said at the event. “When these stores succeed, they can serve as anchors in our communities.” 
The Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from an affordable food store. In rural towns, the distance is 10 miles. 
Walgreens, the Illinois-based retailer with more than 7,000 stores, pledged to reach 4.8 million people in such areas by turning 1,000 of its locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruit, vegetables and other groceries that they do not typically stock. 
Wal-Mart said it would open or expand food sections in 275 to 300 stores by 2016, employing an estimated 40,000 people. SuperValu, which owns many regional grocery chains like Jewel-Osco and ACME, will open 250 new Save-A-Lot stores in five years. 
Childhood obesity is a signature cause adopted by Mrs. Obama. One of every three American children is overweight or obese, leading some scientists to predict that today’s youth could become the first generation to have shorter lives than the previous generation, according to the White House. 
Mrs. Obama said that food deserts, where 6.5 million American children live, contribute to the phenomenon. The government and the private sector need to work together to eliminate food deserts, she said. 
“With your commitments today, you all are showing us what’s possible,” Mrs. Obama said. “This isn’t some mysterious issue that we can’t address. We know the answer. It is right there.”
The Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, begun by Mrs. Obama in February 2010, aims to financially assist stores that open in food deserts. 
The initiative received a $35 million budget this year, well short of the hundreds of millions requested by President Obama. The administration asked for more than $300 million to be approved for it in the next budget. 
In 2009, New York started its Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or Fresh program, a joint state-city effort that offers incentives to stores to open in underserved communities. Fresh is credited with being one of the largest efforts to combat food deserts at a state or local level.

I find it interesting that whenever I see the term "food desert," it is in quotes. It seems appropriate because the existence of food deserts is not a settled issue, nor is the idea that a lack/presence of grocery stores actually has an impact on diets (and here's the actual study).  Nevertheless, the government has committed funds and has come up with a plan to remedy them.

USDA defines a food desert  as "a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 'Low income' tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as "low access" tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."  Obviously, food deserts aren’t ‘real.’ They are constructed. They didn’t exist before the term brought them into being. There’s a lot behind that definition and it tends to flatten out diversity and variation by applying a few standardized numbers to widely divergent situations. As I understand it, smaller grocers and mom and pop stores are not included in the definition of ‘grocery stores’ and are therefore not counted. They may offer good food but don’t figure into the determination of whether or not there is a food desert there.

On another tangent, will those small businesses be undermined by the introduction of these huge distributors, whose scales of efficiency preclude them from working with small, independent farmers? Seems to me that if you wanted to get good food into a place, you work with and seek to strengthen the existing structures…e.g. connecting those mom and pops to small farmers.

So often, policies seek to ‘fix’ a problem (poor eating) by identifying the most obvious, intuitive proximate cause (lack of grocery stores), when in actuality, there’s a whole bunch of other not-so-obvious stuff going on that has created the problem. IMO, the industrial food system is at the root of the problem. Introducing Walmarts and Walgreens (purveyors of the industrial food system) into an area treats the problem with the problem itself. There’s got to be a name for such a philosophical trap.

I also think there is a real danger here in not acknowledging the role of individual choice. Seems like government programs continue to victimize people by insisting that they aren’t responsible for their own poor eating habits.  The same crappy food will be available whether or not there is a corporate grocery store. The same crappy food, because of subsidies, will still be cheaper. It remains to be seen what people will actually buy, though I have my suspicions.

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