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Briefing America's'food deserts'


More than 23 million Americans at leasta mile from the nearest liue supermarket. that what'smakingus fat? Is
(UNC) study of the eating habits of A community in which residentsmust 5,000 people over 15 years found that travel at leasta mile to buy fresh meat, living near a supermarket had little dairy products, and vegetables. More preimpact on whether people had healthy cisel5 the U.S. Department of Agriculture diets. But living close to fast-food outlets (USDA) defines a food desert as any cendid. The real problem, the study found, sus district where at least 20 oercent of is the existenceof "food swamos." filled the inhabitants are below the poverry line with convenience storessellingcalorieand 33 percent live over a mile from the loaded packagedfoods, gallon cups of nearestsupermarket(or in rural areas, soda, and other sugarJoadedbeverages, more than 10 miles). Approximately and fast-food chains peddling burgers, 23.5 million Americans live in a food fries, and fried chicken on almost every Tbe meal of choice for millions desert,saysthe USDA, including vast, streetcorner. Thar's no exaggeration: rural swaths of West Vrginia, Ohio, and There are now five fast-food restaurants Kentucky, as well as urban areaslike Detroit, Chicago, and New for every supermarkettheU.S. in York Ciry. The government believesfood deserts are contributing to the obesiryepidemic in the U.S., by forcing the rural and urban Why do people choosethe'bad'food? poor to rely on processedfoods and fast food, instead of fresh Fast food is generallycheaper,and doesn't need to be prepared meat, vegetables, and fruit. TodaS more than one third of adult and cooked, so it's more convenient.Studieshave also shown Americans are obese. that the huge jolt of fat, salt, and sugar fast food deliverscan be almost as addictive as hard drugs (seebox). Then there'sthe Can this trend be reversed? advertisingfactor: Fast-food companiesspend about $4.2 billion The government thinks it can, if major supermarkets open stores a year marketing their products as life's ultimate rewards, through in blighted areas and stock affordable healthy food options. First saliva-producingads depicting cheese-and-pepperoni-covered pizLady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign,which aims to zas, juicy double cheeseburgers, and steamingFrench fries. reduce childhood obesiry has taken a lead role in this effort, and recently scored a major coup by convincing Wal-Mart, SuperValu, Can these preferencesbe changed? and Walgreensto open or expand 1,500 grocery stores in food des- The IINC study suggestsusing zoning laws to restrict the numerts. The involvement of large retail firms has "the potential to be ber of fast-food restaurantsin low-income neighborhoods.Los a game-changerfor kids and communities all across this country," Angeleshas already experimentedwith this approach, having Obama said. "More parents will have a fresh food retailer right imposed a one-yearmoratorium on the building of fast-food in their communiry so they can feed their families the way they restaurantsover a 32-square-milearea. City officials say the want." But not everyone sharesthe First Lady's optimism; in fact, resultswere successful, and have now imposed permanent zoning some critics say opening new stores and markets in so-called food restrictions on fast-food chains in the poorer. southern part of the desertswill have little or no imoact on city. "We have already artracted new how peopleeat. sit-down restaurants, full-service grocery Fast-food iunkies stores,and healthy food alternatives," lf it sometimes seems that Americans Why would that be? said City Councilwoman Jan Perry. are addictedto fast food, it might be that First of all, the critics say,the very con"Ultimateln this action is about providwe actually are. Studies have repeatedly cept of a food desertmay be a mirage. ing choices." found that the consequences bingeing of One recent University of lilashington on h i g h - c a l o r i e , i g h - f a tf o o d s m i m i c t h e h study found that only 15 percent of peoWill people choose healthy food? effects of drug addiction. A recent study by ple shop for groceries within their own Not necessarily. Many Americans have the Scripps ResearchInstitutefound that censusareas;most of us, in other words, little experience eatingor preparing gorging on fast food actually changesthe are accustomed to traveling a few miles broccoli, asparagus, and other produce; brain'schemical makeup, making it more to stock our pantries.Critics also point difficult to trigger the releaseof dopamine in fact, only 25 percent of the nation's ( ak a " t h e p l e a s u r ec h e m i c a l " ) . T h a tm e a n s out that the USDA takes only supermaradults now eat three servingsof vegfast-food addicts need to eat more and kets into account when deciding whether etables a day. The poor, in particular, more to feel happy-the same way users of an area is a food desert.Smaller grocery have becomeso accustomedto salty cocaine and other drugs, for example, need stores,farmers markets, and roadside packaged foods and sugary beverages to keep upping their dosagesto get high. stalls aren't included. Moreoveq the vast that they find fresh food bland, strange, An earlier study. by PrincetonUniversity, majority of households(93 percent)in and off-putting. "It's simplistic thinkfound that rats who were fed and then food desertshave access a car, and can to ing that if you put fruits and vegetables withdrawn from a high-fat, high-sugardiet easily drive to grocery storesover a mile there, they'll buy it," said Barry Popkin, exhibited similar symptoms-chattering from their homes. author of the UNC study. "You have to teeth and the shakes-to junkies going cold encourageit, you need advertising,you turkey. "Drugs give a bigger effectj' said So what's the real problem? need support." Changing Americans' study author-BartHoebel,"but it's essenMany people simply like fast food better. diets, in other words, won't be as simple tially the same process." 3 A recent University of North Carolina as telling them to eat their peas.
TH E WE EKA ugus t19-25,2011

What is a'food desert'?