It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.
But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.
Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.
Some experts say these new findings raise questions about the effectiveness of efforts to combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods. Despite campaigns to get Americans to exercise more and eat healthier foods, obesity rates have not budged over the past decade, according to recently released federal data.
I live in a part of the country where there is a lot of obesity. At our two local grocery stores, you can get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. You always could. And yet, there is a lot of obesity. I have always believed that the idea that people would eat healthier if you only provided them better options was a myth. Most people would rather eat apple pie than fresh apples. Most people would rather eat French fries than steamed broccoli. Most people would rather eat Doritos now than defer snacking till dinner. Most people would rather eat a lot than reasonably-sized portions. This isn’t rocket science. We infantilize ourselves by acting as if when it comes to what we eat, we have little or no self-control. You have to work at learning to prefer broccoli to French fries, and learning how to say no, I’ve had enough, I don’t need any more. It’s called growing up and not eating like a kid, because it’s killing you.
Walking around Paris, my niece said, “How do these people eat such rich food and stay so thin?” It’s a good question, and an obvious one. The main answer is that if you eat one croissant for breakfast, it’s not going to kill you. If you eat three, you’re going to see the effect. If you eat small portions for lunch and dinner, you don’t have to eat steamed vegetables and be happy with it.