Remember "food deserts"?

That was the idea, hugely big five years ago,  that one major cause of  the so-called obesity epidemic–Americans gettng fat by stuffing themselves with Doritos and Ho-Hos–was because they lived in impoverished neighborhoods distant from supermarkets where they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables and thus reach for a raw carrot instead of a candy bar when they got the munchies. The corner grocery stores where they were forced to shop, selling potato chips instead of fresh produce, were obviously to blame.

But a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study (thanks, Reason magazine, for the reporting on this!) reveals that the whole "food desert" theory turns out to be a crock of kale.

The USDA's Economic Research Service studied the USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) and discovered, lo, that nine out of ten low-income households actually do most of their food shopping at supermarkets and similar large outlets just like the rest of us. Furthermore:

The researchers found that households—both low-income and higher income—consider store characteristics other than proximity in deciding where to shop….

FoodAPS data also show that households often bypass the nearest supermarket to obtain groceries. The average straight-line distance to the nearest supermarket was 2.1 miles, but households traveled an average of 3.8 miles to get to the store in which they do their usual shopping. This behavior was consistent across transportations modes; even those who walk, bike, or take public transit traveled, on average, farther than the distance to the nearest supermarket to do their primary food shopping. This study suggests that most U.S. households are not limited by the food stores in their own neighborhoods….

If poor food access affects consumers’ food choices, then the dietary quality of consumers with limited food shopping options should improve when they shop farther from home, where their choices are less constrained. Nielsen data confirm that the dietary quality of their purchases did improve, but just slightly. By driving an extra mile to the store, low-access consumers purchased 0.42 percent more fruits, 0.55 percent more vegetables, 0.61 percent more low-fat milk products, and 0.33 percent less nondiet drinks.

In short, low-income people who buy and eat junk food do so because they like junk food.

The worst thing about the "food desert" theory was that it generated…yes, you guessed it, taxpayer-funded programs, sometimes of  a coercive nature:

Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores. States and local governments have also launched programs to attract supermarkets or improve existing stores in underserved areas. For example, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative has provided $30 million of public funds (matched with $117 million of private investment) to help address limited store access in underserved urban and rural areas throughout Pennsylvania.

Other State programs have tried to improve the variety of food products offered in existing stores. For example, the Staple Food Ordinance passed in 2009 by the City of Minneapolis requires most retailers selling small amounts of food (corner grocery stores, drug stores, large gas stations, nonspecialty food stores, etc.) to stock more staples, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and whole-grain breads and rolls.

"Food desert" mania even hit my own Washington, DC neighborhood not far from the U.S. Capitol. Someone decided that since it includes a bunch of housing projects, it must be a food desert, so a do-gooding non-profit swooped in with a weekly farmers' market–even though there was actually an enormous Safeway just half a block down the street. And as might be expected, the farmers' market's main customers turned out to be middle-class gentrifiers like me eager to get our hands onto the vine-ripened tomatoes. Few housing-projects residents ever showed up.

So it's good to read that food deserts have finally gotten their just desserts.