Young Kim over at UrbanMilwaukee.com weighs in this week on the release of two studies that, according to the New York Times, find “no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.”
In other words, the idea of food deserts, one of the most popular explanations for a very real obesity crisis in low-income neighborhoods, is not scientifically supported on aggregate. Kim argues the studies miss part of the story by focusing on the 30,000-foot view rather than looking at individual neighborhoods. It is a legitimate argument that I agree with, but I think there is a more important explanation for the lack of connection between the availability of good food and obesity.
The explanation is firmly rooted in something I call the housing project principle. The phrase (which has failed to catch-on, come on people!) refers to the tendency in public policy to blame and address only the most obvious symptom of a societal problem. People do not have homes? Build a housing project. People are not eating healthy, put healthy food in their neighborhood.
Policy decisions made using the housing project principal tend to be, like housing projects, well-intentioned failures. I have no doubt that simply flooding low-income neighborhoods with cheap healthy food would fail to curb childhood obesity.
Last year I shared a panel with a researcher out of Rutgers-Newark who offered one of the more interesting findings on the topic. The researcher, Molly Makris, is looking at the impact of gentrification in Hoboken, NJ through a qualitative study of the one remaining housing project in the otherwise fully gentrified high-income city. She found that the lower-income residents of Hoboken still shopped at the corner store across the street from the housing project despite the availability of cheaper healthier food at a comparable distance. Why? The corner store is a neighborhood institution, more important, it is their neighborhood institution.
Neither Markis’ research nor the studies in the New York Times mean the concept of food deserts should be crossed off the list of policy concerns. Obesity drives up the cost of health-care, and the rising cost of health-care threatens the public sector, the private sector, and the quality of life for Wisconsinites. And yes, the availability of healthy food is a necessary prerequisite for lowering the obesity rate in low-income (and middle- and high-income) neighborhoods. But it is not enough. Lowering obesity rates requires health education, opportunities and incentives for exercise, and so much more.
Thankfully, there is plenty of evidence that that philanthropic sector in particular understands the need for multi-track efforts to address obesity. Non-profits in Milwaukee and elsewhere (such as my sister’s KidFit Academy) are popping up to address food and health issues that go far beyond ending the paucity of fresh produce in some neighborhoods.