Grist has an interesting article examining “food deserts”-areas where low income people struggle to find affordable and healthy foods.  The USDA just released a new “food desert locator” and predictably, the widely simplistic algorithm used by the USDA to locate grocery stores leaves out the mom-and-pop shops, farmers markets, ethnic grocery stores, and other small food shops that provide people perfectly nutritious and reasonably priced food. 

Of course, before delving too deeply into where exactly these so called “food deserts” are located, it is important to establish that the very existence of “food deserts” is a myth.  As an excellent 2010 CNS article explains, lower income people actually live closer to grocery stores than the so-called “rich.” 

In the 2008 farm bill, Congress mandated that the department conduct a $500,000 study of “food deserts.” 

“Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles,” said the Agriculture Department report. “Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).” 

There are 23.5 million people who live in “low income” areas that are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. But more than half of these people are not low-income, and almost everyone in these areas–93.3 percent-drive their cars to the supermarket. On average, they spend 4.5 minutes more than the typical American traveling to the supermarket. 

Yet, despite her husband’s own administration finding these food deserts don’t really exist, the First Lady continues to bemoan the food conditions for low-income Americans. And while Ms. Obama herself pushes families to procure food at farmers markets, home gardens and small mom-and-pop food stores, the USDA report contradicts her advice when it declares these are not good sources for affordable food; instead endorsing “full service” big-box stores which the agency says offer more affordable access to food diversity than do other venues.  

But as Grist points out, the USDA has no real data to make this claim:  

The fatal flaw of the Obama strategy to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and obesity in America is that it risks bringing more big-box stores both to poor urban neighborhoods and to rural communities. It categorically ignores the fact that independently owned groceries, corner markets in ethnic neighborhoods, farmers markets, CSAs, and roadside stands are the real sources of affordable food diversity in America. But in its 2009 report to Congress, the USDA conceded that “a complete assessment of these diverse food environments would be such an enormous task” that it decided not to survey independently owned food purveyors. Therefore, it decided to ignore their beneficial roles and focus on the grocery-store chains that now capture three-quarters of all current foods sales in the U.S. 

I don’t agree with everything Grist writers Gary Nabhan and Kelly Watters say in the article (their obligatory swipes at corn syrup and large corporations are so tiresome!), but, as the CNS article pointed out in 2010, its interesting to hear the mixed messages coming from the White House and how the flawed USDA report on food deserts only examined a small segment of the food and grocery industries. 

Given the fact that the USDA doesn’t really have a handle on just how Americans feed themselves, perhaps they might save the taxpayer the $400 million set aside in federal USDA grants to bring grocery stores into these so-called food deserts. 

While I’m a big proponent of big-box stores moving into urban areas and thoroughly object to big labor’s efforts to keep them out, the market should drive these business decisions, not government programs. 

If, in fact, people do have a vast number of ways to get affordable food through a variety of shops and farmers markets than these government grants to grocery stores do nothing more than further homogenize America’s food culture.  This isn’t the market working. This is the government telling grocery stores where they should locate. 

All of this to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.