Seven Food Desert Myths

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In its efforts to combat disproportionately high obesity rates and poor health in low-income communities, the Obama administration has turned its focus to food deserts, defined as low-income communities lacking supermarkets or large grocery stores.

The idea is simple: if you don’t have cheap, nutritious food around, you’ll see health problems in your community. Hence the emphasis on bringing more supermarkets into neighborhoods. But improving a community’s health is more complicated than that, as other factors influence people’s health. Here are seven myths surrounding food deserts:

Supermarkets are the answer to the food desert problem.

Encouraging supermarkets to open up shop in low-income areas does increase food access, but it’s not the only way to bring fresh produce to a community. Non-chain, small or ethnic grocery stores are also viable solutions. The reason such stores aren’t taken into account when determining food deserts is because the task would be too daunting, the U.S.  Department of Agriculture conceded in a 2009 report.

If there are supermarkets around, people’s diets improve.

It’s quite difficult to maintain a healthy diet on a budget if there are no fruits and vegetables sold in your neighborhood. But simply opening a supermarket doesn’t mean people will have healthier diets. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that the presence of supermarkets didn’t translate into city dwellers eating more fruits and vegetables. Researchers say that other issues may play a role, including the affordability and visibility of healthy foods inside stores.

Corner stores are bad for your health.

Corner stores are often thought of as peddlers of high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and sodium. But corner stores in of themselves aren’t necessarily bad; they could serve as assets if they’re stocked properly. There’s a move afoot in cities such as D.C. to provide fresh produce to corner stores located in food deserts. A similar campaign began in 2008 in Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins University researchers saw improved community health as a result.

Farmers markets are just for rich people.

Farmers markets are often brushed aside as being too pricey for low-income families. But many markets, including a number in D.C., accept food assistance subsidies such as EBT. Some markets even offer double-dollars for those on food assistance. The markets may not be the best option to buy all food, and they can’t single-highhandedly solve the food desert problem. But purchasing some produce at markets with double-dollars can be cheaper than supermarket prices.

If people had more money, they would be healthier.

Poor people who move to middle class neighborhoods see improved health, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study tracked groups of low-income families: one group stayed in their neighborhoods but were given subsidies, while another group were given subsidies but used the money to move to middle class neighborhoods. The folks who moved were 5 percent less likely to be obese or develop signs of diabetes, while those who stayed didn’t show improved health. The study’s authors weren’t sure as to the reason behind the difference, but surmised it may have to do with food access.

There’s plenty of cheap, healthy food. People just need to know how to cook it.

It may be cheaper and healthier to buy a bag of dried beans than a McDonald’s hamburger. But it takes time to cook such food, and you need access to a kitchen, things that can be luxuries for the working poor. Racialicious’ Latoya Peterson shares a personal story illuminating such struggles:

I have a memory, from long ago, where I am sitting in the parking lot of a McDonalds, with my mom, trying to count out 63 pennies from the floor around the car, the change jar, and the pavement around the car in order to purchase two hamburgers from McDonalds for our evening meal. Cheap food exists for a reason. 63 cents doesn’t go far in the grocery store if you want a hot meal, and have no where for food prep. (Something that people also conveniently forget about – a lot of eating well on a budget requires prep with at least a hot plate, running water, and basic utensils. If you don’t have these things, you have to eat ready made food. Needless to say, living out of a car doesn’t provide you with consistent access to these things.) But a whole hamburger meant a lot to a seven-year-old stomach that was going to go hungry…These are broke people choices.

Unhealthy food is the root of the problem.

Much attention has been given to food deserts, but there’s another component to improving a community’s health: reducing violence. Studies show there is a relationship between community violence and community health. People are less likely to walk outside or take advantage of recreational activities if there’s a lot of crime in a community. The same goes for children; parents don’t want their kids to play outside if there’s a fear that they could be the victims of violence.


  • Danbarth529

    Thank you for the insights included in your article.  They are accurate and succinctly stated.   Perhaps there is one, and perhaps the most pernicious of all of the myths, you omitted.   Myth #8 (or I daresay #1!!) – that government is the answer to people’s problems.  Consideration of the primary place of personal responsibility has all but disappeared in our contemplation of public policy.  That is THE disaster of the 20th and 21st century in America.  (Proverbs 14:12).  We can choose to ignore truth but we cannot choose the consequences.