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Food “Deserts” or “Food Swamps?”

food desert

As any American who might watch a television talk show, read the New York Times, or even People magazine might know, First Lady Michelle Obama has been hard at work on her campaign to fight childhood obesity, Let’s Move. One of the main issues that Mrs. Obama was targeting was the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in less affluent communities. Policy makers, advocates, and Mrs. Obama herself have been hard at work trying to combat these “food deserts.”

However, a recent study conducted by Dr. Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California has shown that these poor communities are not devoid of fresh produce. While poor neighborhoods she looked at had twice as many fast food restaurants, and three times as many corner stores, as more well off communities, they also had almost twice as many grocery stores and supermarkets! Additionally, Dr. Lee found no difference in weight between children in communities that are financially polarized.

Another study conducted by the RAND corporation produced similar results, adding that what children eat is the same regardless of the distance between their homes and the nearest supermarket or fast food restaurant.

This would explain why despite all of the campaigns to improve access to healthy foods, the obesity epidemic has not subsided. The problem is not a lack of access—Dr. Lee’s study shows that. In my opinion, it is a lack in knowledge of smart food choices, and a lack of effort in preparing food. It is easy to buy Sunchips or baked chips instead of kettle-cooked potato chips, but portions then get out of control. And especially for those of us who keep kosher, it is often a pain to prepare produce, since one needs to take special care in cleaning fruits and vegetables.

Additionally, instead of focusing on access to healthy foods, individuals need to be encouraged to eat healthy as well as exercise. Mrs. Obama does keep this in mind, as she has been advocating for more playgrounds in communities and extended physical education classes.

Lastly, it is simply very hard to change food habits. Kids are accustomed to getting Fruit by the Foot and Chex Mix as a snack. If those were the snacks I had gotten as a kid, then I would not have been pleased with the string cheese, apple, and celery sticks my mother gave me from kindergarten until 6th grade. It is incumbent upon parents, from the get-go, to provide their children with healthy snacks and meals, as well as knowledge about why they receive the food they do.