Is It Time to Ditch the Term ‘Food Desert’?

New research suggests there’s no correlation between closeness of supermarkets and whether a person is overweight or obese.

A woman buys soda from Weso Mini Market in a Philadelphia neighborhood considered by many to be a food desert. (Photo by: Jahi Chikwendiu/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Food justice activists frequently reference “food deserts”—which refers to areas that have limited access to healthful food—in making their case for more equitable food policies and the introduction of better food choices in low-income communities. It is a favorite term of the good food crowd—and health-crazed First Lady Michelle Obama as well.

But could the term food desert be going out of style?

At least three studies in the last couple of years have questioned the common knowledge about neighborhoods or cities purported to lack access to fresh, healthy foods. A 2012 study appeared to show that, while low-income areas often have more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, they also have more full-service restaurants and grocery stores. Another study, conducted in 2011, found no correlation between the health of residents and the type of food being sold in a neighborhood.

And last month, researchers released a study, for which they surveyed nearly 100,000 Californians, finding that not having a supermarket within walking distance did not appear to affect a person’s chances of being overweight or obese.

Evidence linking obesity with the food environment “is more tentative than often presented in the news media and in policy arguments” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. “The evidence is not clear on whether promoting or discouraging a particular type of food outlet is an effective approach to promoting healthful dietary behavior and weight status.”

The study did conclude, however, that the more fast-food restaurants someone has within three miles of home, the more likely they are to consume a less-healthy diet and be in poor health. It also found that the number of supermarkets within a mile and a half of one’s home correlated with drinking fewer high-calorie soft drinks.

But the PCD journal study has its critics as well. Dr. Hugh Joseph of the Friedman School of Food and Nutrition at Tufts University says the parameters of the study are flawed from the outset because such a wide range of distances are considered “walkable.”

“[The distance] certainly does not correlate with where food is accessed in urban areas, where most people have vehicle access or reasonable public transport to grocery stores,” Joseph says. “And most people don’t want to walk with groceries, especially that far, and especially if overweight. So it’s a bit of a catch 22 here, yes?”

Others point out that the study gives no indication of the demographic mix of respondents, nor of their economic status. And while the study states that access to motorized transportation mitigates the affect of lack of access to nutritious food, it did not state the percentage and statistical significance of those who had personal vehicles. 

But for some observers, the study’s results regarding supermarket closeness and being overweight have again raised questions about the usefulness of the term “food deserts.” The Campaign for Food Justice Now’s Ladonna Redmond calls the research that created the term “flawed,” adding that too often the solution is a corporate supermarket rather than grassroots community work—like farmers markets and urban agriculture projects, for instance.

Ed Harris, a research consultant with Tomorrow’s Harvest, agrees that the solutions often ignore community efforts in favor of supermarkets, but adds that too often food desert studies assume that “bringing healthy food retail in will cause a drop in diet related disease,” while “there is little evidence that indicates this.”

The United States Department of Agriculture, for one, may be moving away from the term “food desert.” The department’s Economic Research Service has replaced its “Food Desert Locator” with what it calls a “Food Access Research Atlas,” a “mapping tool that allows users to investigate multiple indicators of food store access.” With the tool, USDA appears to be digging a bit deeper into the realities, causes and solutions around food access. What’s more, the term “food desert” is nowhere to be found on its website.

No word yet on whether Food Desert Awareness Month (which is September, in case you forgot) will be observed this year. Stay tuned.

What do you think? Has the term food desert outlived its usefulness?

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