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Considering 'Food Deserts' in Light of RAND study

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When people try to find the cause of our national obesity epidemic, "food deserts" come up pretty quickly. A food desert is, by definition, a geographic area devoid of affordable and nutritious food. And not being able to access healthy food sure seems like one big detriment to leading a nutritious lifestyle.

But a new study by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit global policy think tank, claims there is no linkage between food deserts and obesity.

According to the study, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, there is no evidence of a correlation between food and drink that a resident of Los Angeles County consumes, and the proximity of said food and drink from where they live. In other words, the idea of location, location, location is not valid when it comes to deciding what one eats. This is not the first time a study like this has been published:

In the last few years, [Ronald Sturm, senior economist at the RAND Corporation and author of the study] has published other papers evaluating the connection between the food environment -- the distribution and number of food shops -- and people's eating habits and, for the most part, found little connection.

Reaction to the study has been predictable. Almost immediately, members of the right wing blogosphere claimed it as evidence of the Left's faulty perspective. "If we want to see what a government-sanctioned diet looks like," writes one blogger, "just look to the school lunch program or a prison. Freedom is tasty." Score one for us freedom fighters in our ongoing battle against the mommy state, is the sentiment.

However, the lack of direct linkage highlights how deep the problem goes.

"This study neglects some key factors," said Clare Fox, the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Among her complaints are that the study examined only two factors -- food deserts and BMI (Body Mass Index), the latter of which doesn't necessarily relate to the health of a community. "One can be thin but still suffer nutrition-related chronic disease," Fox said. "It is a limited lens to view overall health."

Another issue is that while the study accounts for different types of food retail, it doesn't consider the quality of food, price, or how it's marketed. "All of these factors contribute a great deal to shaping the choices people make about what to eat," Fox said.

In fact, a 2014 study by RAND shows that the price of food directly correlates with a shopper's obesity, with lower-priced foods leading to a higher prevalence of it. That study also showed that low- and high-priced stores differ greatly in how they display and market junk foods. High-priced stores were nearly three times as likely to promote healthy foods than low-priced ones.

This, to Fox, is why the pronouncement that food deserts are not the cause of obesity is problematic and dangerous.

"It's important to note that health disparities seen in low-income communities and communities of color are a result of many generations of inequitable development, discrimination, and divestment that shapes the kind of food options available in food desert neighborhoods," Fox said. "We need to keep in mind the big picture: food deserts, 'food swamps' and 'food apartheid' are all different terms to describe the way poverty and racism have led to limited options for some communities."

Reducing the new RAND study to simply a headline -- say, "Food Deserts Shown To Not Be Important" -- risks missing the point. Rather than focusing on the proximity to a food source, we need to examine the myriad of factors at play, some of which expose deeply problematic parts of our nation's historic inequality.

"Affluent communities don't have to prove why they are deserving of resource investment by connecting these investments to health outcomes," Fox said. "Why do historically disenfranchised communities have to carry this burden of proof to demonstrate that they are deserving of the same access to resources as their counterparts cross town? The fact that many communities don't have the option to make healthy choices is more than just a health issue. It's an ethics and human rights issue."

If this study does change how we look at food deserts, it should be towards a realization this isn't a simple issue that can be solved by just throwing up a few fresh grocery stores in impoverished areas. The food desert, perhaps, isn't the core problem, so much as a side effect of decades of gross neglect in these communities. Instead, we need to continue to fix the root causes that have lead to this in the first place.

The solutions have already been detailed: Getting farmers' markets to accept CalFresh, using incentives to bring small businesses with healthy options into under served communities, school meal programs that focus on health, limits on what the marketers of unhealthy foods can be allowed, educating communities about the importance of healthy diet and exercise, and making recreational areas more accessible. With some combination of these efforts, we'll be able to lower obesity rates, and then watch the food deserts shrink from the map.

"There's no silver bullet fix," Fox said. "The cumulative effect of multiple strategies will support healthier communities."

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