Food deserts

A report has just been published presenting evidence that "more than a million adults" live in what are called 'food deserts'.  'Food deserts' (the report says) are "neighbourhoods of between 5,000-15,000 people served by two or fewer big supermarkets".

People in 'food deserts' have - the report argues - reduced access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, which in turn means they don't eat well and are more likely to be obese.  (The latter, presumably, because instead of fresh fruit and vegetables they eat excessive amounts of processed foods.)


Having presented its analysis about food deserts, the report - to its credit - does actually present the results of a survey conducted as part of the research.  This survey asked people (it doesn't say how many people, or precisely which kinds of people, but let's assume they mean 'a representative sample of the British public') what are the factors that stop them from eating more healthily.

Choose three, the question asked.  So 29% of people said that they didn't have enough money, and 22% said they didn't have enough time to cook healthily and 18% said they didn't really know what was healthy and what wasn't.

What about the availability of supermarkets?  Um, er, 12% of people said this.


So the thing the report claims to have found out is actually quite low down the list of the things people are bothered about?

It gets worse.  Recent US research (The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States by Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, Jean-Pierre Dube) actually went to the trouble of working out the relative contribution of 'food deserts' to the overall problem of poor diets.  That is, rather than relying on what people say (surveys can be so unreliable...) or what Kellogg's (funders of the report) are trying to promote, let's actually work out the contributions of the various possible explanatory factors - lack of money, lack of time, lack of knowledge... and lack of nearby large supermarkets.

Turns out that being in a 'food desert' explains only 9% of the observed differences in 'nutritional inequality' between the people that live in a 'food desert' and the people that don't.  The remaining 91% - ninety one percent! - is explained by others factors.

Which is by way of saying: if you're serious about improving the diets of poor people, don't think that you can fix the problem just by giving them a shiny new Tesco.  That's the sort of thing that might grab short-term headlines (surely not the motivation for this research?!) but it is old-school thinking.  Poor quality diets, obesity and other food-related social ills are complex modern problems, and tackling them requires smart, nuanced, twenty-first century thinking.

PS Another study found that obesity in Mexico was being made worse by food imported from the USA.  Uh huh.  So something else to look forward to post-Brexit...


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