Politics & Policy

Studies Undermine Michelle Obama’s ‘Food Deserts’ Campaign

In real life nobody cares when you open up a Ralph's

A major initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign was to “eliminate food deserts” – or areas where access to affordable, quality, and nutritious food is limited — but it seems such a project does little to help Americans become more healthy.

Regular readers of National Review Online will know that much of the Let’s Move campaign hasn’t lived up to expectations, but a new study by the journal Health Affairs supports the claim that efforts to eradicate food deserts have fallen short as well and haven’t made Americans any healthier.

The study looked at over 1,000 Philadelphia residents who formerly lived in areas considered food deserts but have since seen grocery stores built within 1.5 miles of their residences. Six months after supermarkets were built, the researchers found only 26.7 percent of those who lived near one of the newly built grocery stores ended up using the grocery store as their main food source. Within that 26.7 percent there was no significant improvement in body-mass index or intake of fruits and vegetables.

The findings led the authors of the study to write that “this indicates that simply providing new food retail stores is insufficient to encourage the adoption of new stores as residents’ main food source.” Residents who didn’t adopt the new stores, it is assumed, continued to use the old, less-healthy alternative.

According to Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, six months may not be enough time to measure the effects of introducing new supermarkets to neighborhoods. But she notes that previous studies showed no evidence that expanding access to healthy food reduces obesity rates.

There have only been two other studies of this kind exploring the introduction of healthier markets into food deserts, both of which were in Britain and “showed mixed results,” Kliff writes.

Sadly, these efforts can’t merely be shrugged off with a quick, “at least it was a good try.” The first lady’s Let’s Move Campaign started with an announcement that, beginning in 2011, the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services will “invest” $400 million a year “to help bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options.”

On top of that, cities such as Philadelphia have used “stimulus” funds meant to combat obesity to fund healthier markets. Cities have also received grants from the $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund of the Affordable Care Act for the same purpose.

The only tangible effect of all this spending and effort seems to be that, as the new study says, people noticed the new supermarkets, thought the quality of fruit and vegetable options improved, and also thought that fruit and vegetable prices decreased.

That’s a lot of money for merely a change in perception.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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