The Food Desert Mirage

18 Apr

Recently two studies have published findings disputing the popular wisdom of “Food Deserts.”  (A phrase just begging to be misread, or perhaps I am just far too fixated on cake.)  For some time now; health experts, food security advocates and the like, have maintained that diminished access to whole foods has contributed to increased rates of obesity and obesity related illness.  Arguments go further, suggesting that inexpensive fast food is often the only food choice in lower income neighborhoods.

It’s understandable where this theory comes from.  Poorer neighborhoods have more fast food establishments (and liquor and check cashing stores.)  People with lower incomes tend to be in poorer health and suffer higher obesity rates, ergo…  But viewed from another angle, say at 180 degrees, there is a “sexual assault occurs more in the summer therefore ice cream must be to blame” aspect to this theory.  For food desert theory to be true, a couple of factors must be in place, chief among them lack of access to whole foods.  (“Whole Foods” is an apt phrase to use, as anyone who’s ever been on the subway can report that people travel quite some distance to lug home shopping bags from a store filled with tastefully displayed organics.  Proving that proximity to groceries is a relative concept.)  Second to the issue of lack of access is that of fast food being less costly than whole food.  Excluding any clearance sales of shamrock shakes, prepared food is always more pricey than (very healthful) dried beans and rice.  Lastly, if the income level is low enough, children will be eating two meals a day (for ten months) in the public school.  (Ketchup as vegetable aside, school lunches are more healthful than fast food.)

So then how do we explain the rise in obesity levels in lower income neighborhoods?  How did a country which once demonstrated wealth by the enormity of one’s waistband become a mirror image of itself?  First we look at the nation as a whole.  It is not just lower income people who are growing.  Second, we focus on where we can make an impact; the children.  Why are children, across a wide swath of economic levels, growing in size?  What has changed?

In the 1950s (or even 1960s) a child’s day may start with a nutritionally balanced and perhaps even cooked breakfast.  Eggs, hot and cold cereal, real juice and milk were often the order of the weekday.  Fancy carbohydrates (pancakes, waffles and french toast) were a weekend treat.  Many children came home for lunch, often to a sturdy hot meal.  Lunchbox toting tots unpacked portable versions of home lunches and augmented them with a carton of (whole) milk.  One thing was noticeably absent from the average child’s day: a Wonkaville world of processed snacks and treats.  “Sugar” cereals were relatively new to the game and made rare appearances on breakfast tables.  Microwaveable or toastable bakery-like confections were yet to be invented.  Once out of the house, children were not barraged with processed snacks as they are now.  Vending machines were in factories and offices, and issued more sandwiches and half-filled cups of coffee colored acid, than they did snacks and candy.  Pocket money (if a child had such a thing) would be spent on a favorite candy bar, comic book or gum.  If fast food (which was in its infancy) made it into the house as an evening meal, it was a treat (for the children) and a respite (for the parents.)

The proliferation and availability of processed food snacks has changed our culture’s orientation towards “junk food.”  Ice cream and cake were often the highlight of a child’s birthday party (versus the bespoke goody bags and Vegas entertainers of today.)  Edible treats are now viewed as an integral part of a child’s day.  (Just try and find a playground, zoo, or museum that doesn’t have a snack bar perimeter.)  Children have money to buy snacks on the way to and from school, not to mention IN the school.  Those that do engage in organized play are supplied snacks during their 15 minutes of actual activity.  From the earliest of ages, children are being taught to prefer the taste of processed foods.  Baby yogurts(!) line grocery shelves.  Yogurt IS baby food (what’s next? baby-baby food?)  Toddlers cannot make it one full block in their stroller without carbo-loading on goldfish crackers or cheerios.  Special toddler meals now join baby food ranks.  Plying children with food stuff in nugget form is the norm.  For at least a decade now, a portable lunch rich in nitrates and sugar can be purchased and tossed into a backpack.  All of these “foods” came from a grocery store, not a food desert.

To really understand what’s going on and how to ensure we’re not on the brink of being an obese nation suffering from malnutrition we must let go of the notion of food deserts.  There is enormous special interest and billions of dollars involved in this issue.  It is no wonder we are loath to really examine what is in essence a “food amusement park.”


Posted by on April 18, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Well-Being


Tags: , , , , , ,

7 responses to “The Food Desert Mirage

  1. Dorothy Handelman

    April 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I appreciate the well crafted analysis of your post. As a parent of three, nutrition has weighed heavily in my concerns. The problem with dried beans and such is that they are time consuming to prepare and most of us don’t live in a world where any one has the energy to spend cooking instead of reheating. I do think you have hit the nail on the head in terms of special interests. Corn and wheat especially both have a great ability to be spun in to all sorts of foodstuffs, offer amazing shelf life, deliver high taste satisfaction and are cheap, offering high profit margins to the food industry. As a culture, we seemed possessed by the need to experience flavors- eating has become an arm of the entertainment empire and as a nation, every aspect of daily life is an opportunity for someone to sell us something.

    As a side note- I just discovered your blog. I am a fan!

    • brendatobias

      April 23, 2012 at 7:48 am

      Thank you for such an insightful (and thoughtful) response. I really enjoyed it.

    • SteveFromBoston

      April 30, 2012 at 11:11 am


      As for beans and such requiring time and energy to prepare I would argue in favor of taking that time. It’s funny how someone who can spend 2-4 hours a day watching tv and a couple of hours on the computer or phone complain that they “don’t have time”

      In fact if you compare what our not that distant relatives had to do in a day we have all the time in the world. Can you imagine getting up a dawn, feeding the livestock, milking cows, collecting eggs, cutting firewood, walking or riding a wagon to get somewhere, hand washing laundry etc etc etc and still having to home cook 3 full meals a day……

      We have and should take a slow approach to making food. Turn off the tv and stop answering texts and you’ll have a whole bunch of time to make a nice meal and it will taste better and be better for you.

      • brendatobias

        April 30, 2012 at 11:46 am

        I too am also befuddled by the “time drought” everyone seems to experience. I suspect there are people who are more comfortable living in a bit of a whirlwind. But for everyone else who prefers some calm (and time) but finds themselves with less than they’d like, I would suggest some triage. And certainly paying attention to how much time is spent in front of a screen is a good place to start!
        It’s funny you mention our agrarian ancestors, I often find myself thinking of how labor intensive earlier generations were. Humans abhor a vacuum, and I believe each generation will work to fill their time, sometimes not to their best advantage.

  2. Bill Batson

    April 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I view your publication as much for the pictures as for the brilliant writing. I remember saying the opposite about playboy. Now that’s better!

    • brendatobias

      April 18, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Hmmmm, so many ways to take that, and they are all so flattering! 🙂 Thank you!!!

  3. Bill Batson

    April 18, 2012 at 9:30 am

    I view your publication as much for pictures and the brilliant writing. I remember saying the opposite about playboy.


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