Political Incorrect Paper of the Day: Food Deserts

Here is the abstract to The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States (free version) by Allcott, Diamond, and Dubé:

We study the causes of “nutritional inequality”: why the wealthy tend to eat more healthfully than the poor in the U.S. Using two event study designs exploiting entry of new supermarkets and households’ moves to healthier neighborhoods, we reject that neighborhood environments have economically meaningful effects on healthy eating. Using a structural demand model, we find that exposing low-income households to the same food availability and prices experienced by high-income households would reduce nutritional inequality by only 9%, while the remaining 91% is driven by differences in demand. In turn, these income-related demand differences are partially explained by education, nutrition knowledge, and regional preferences. These findings contrast with discussions of nutritional inequality that emphasize supply-side issues such as food deserts.

This is a good paper with a credible research design and impressive data from some 35,000 supermarkets covering 40% of the United States. Moreover, because of the widespread attention given to “food deserts” this paper probably had to be written. But color me un-surprised. The results are obvious.

Indeed, I feel that in recent years I am reading a lot of papers that aim massive firepower on weak hypotheses. As an explanation for obesity and poor eating habits, the idea of “food deserts” was absurd. The reasons are manifold. Even in food deserts it’s actually not that difficult to get healthy food and, contrary to popular belief, healthy food is not especially expensive. Try an Asian supermarket for plenty of cheap produce. Indeed, in any part of the United States you can find plenty of poor-people eating healthy foods and plenty of rich people eating unhealthy foods.

The food deserts idea was especially implausible for America because Americans spend less of their income on food consumed at home (6%) than any other nation. The Dutch, for example, spend (12%) of their income on food, the Italians and Japanese (14%), the Vietnamese (35%). There is plenty of room in the American food budget for healthy eating. Finally, Allcott, Diamond, and Dubé show that relative to unhealthy food, healthy food is actually a bit cheaper in low-income areas.

More importantly, just open your eyes. Walk into a fast food joint in a food desert and ask yourself, do the customers really want brussel sprouts but are reluctantly settling for Chips Ahoy? The idea is ridiculous and not a bit insulting in denying agency to the people who live in low-income areas. If what people living in food deserts wanted was brussel sprouts, they would get them.

The Whole Foods class think their kale and kombucha are so obviously superior to what the poor eat that the only possible explanation for poor eating is that poor people are denied choice. Yet put an inexpensive but colorful produce stand next to a McDonald’s and you can be sure that the customers will differ by class. Why the poor choose to eat differently than the rich is an interesting and important question but one more amenable to answers focusing on culture, education and history than price and income. The idea applies widely.


How much did the Kochs pay for this post? Alex, you’re a blissful, doe-eyed dullard and I really enjoy these freshman-year dorm conversations masquerading as social critique

This is racist.

But what are the Chinese allowed to say about it?

You've convinced me Ethan. I mean two lines of ad hominem attack always beats paragraphs of boring old data and analysis.

ethan is a soros troll, and none too smart for the $6/hr he gets paid

Obviously a lot. He needs the money to pay his Kombucha and kale budget.

AlexT gets his Just (food) desserts! Sounds like a foodie place I once saw... man my internet is fast now in the Philippines. Usually I am relegated to dial-up modem speeds.

Oh Damn. You beat me to the just desserts pun, Ray!

Kombucha is not a food. It is a folk medicine, basically unregulated antibiotics. Definitely not a good thing, comparable to the use of low-dose antibiotics in animal feed to increase weight gain.

Isn't it really unregulated (pro)biotics?

No, the medicinal qualities of kombucha come from various antibiotics secreted by the community of bacteria and fungi that live in it. A probiotic is intended to colonize the gastrointestinal tract with something like Lactobacillus. Nothing in kombucha is intended to colonize the GI tract.

The premise that anyone really knows what is "healthy" or "unhealthy" is false. I recognize that everyone has their own idea of what is healthy but I also recognize that no one agrees. Ask any committed vegan if they would eat bacon, they would vomit at the thought. perhaps chips ahoy are not "good" for you and perhaps brussel sprouts ARE good for you but more likely it is more about virtue signaling than it is about science or fact. What, exactly, IS a healthy diet??? .

Google "food pyramid". They all look broadly similar and have been for 30 years.

Yeah, but the food pyramid is dangerous bollocks: government propaganda that's been wrong-headed from the beginning.

Indeed. It directs people to eat mostly carbs.

Eating mostly carbs is totally fine. The healthiest diet in the world, CRON, is typically 80% carbs. But some things we do know, like vegetables are good for you and fast food is not.

Against government propaganda, I can indeed only recommend you wear a tin-foil hat.

lol, it is extremely knowable that Brussel sprouts are healthy and Chips Ahoy are unhealthy.

Vegetables: good. Lean proteins: good. Cookies designed and tested (both within a lab and via the marketplace) to combine flavor- and calorie-density in a way that gets us to eat past satiety triggers: not good. The state of nutritional science is not great, but it's not pure entropy here.

Yes, at least the food pyramid and the Atkins diet agree that sugar is bad.

@Hazel Meade - but sugar gets a bum rap?! What about that Tanzania tribe, the Haska? tribe, that gets a lot of their energy from honey? And pace diabetes, what's so bad about sugar anyway? You can't live forever, and eating healthy (which I like to do) only adds about five years at most to your lifespan last I checked. It's all genetics. To live long you must mate with certain people found in Italy, Greece, Japan and parts of the former USSR last I checked...those Ukraine? ladies who lives to 100+ from eating yogurt.

The food crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in the hopes of adding five years onto the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity. -- Orwell

"Brussel sprouts are healthy"

But disgusting.

The main problem with vegetables is that many are either tasteless or actually bad tasting.

They can be quite tasty with a cream and cheese sauce, with a good amount of ham thrown in. Whether that counts as healthy is anyone's guess.

There are lots of different kinds, though. And you don't have to eat a lot of different kinds to have a healthy diet.

Cut them in half, add a little oil and spices, and roast them, delicious!

Yeah, our culture just doesn't know how to cook veggies in a way that tastes good. For comparison look at Asians - lots of stir fry in various sauces with garlic ginger and onions for flavor. Westerners just boil veggin or steam them. Blah.

And tons of sugar, Hazel. They add sugar.

I've cooked Asian food. I didn't notice sugar on the ingredients. Maybe Asian restaurants in the US add a lotouch of sugar cause it suits American tastes

True: my Chinese gran *always* added a spoonful of sugar with the veg (to slight disdain and bafflement of British relatives).

Incidentally, not sure why Alex constantly steps on his argument here by supposing the poor can go to Chinese grocery stores; there aren't many of them, they're geographically limited, their veg are more expensive than supermarkets...

Yes and when they put all that olive oil on that kale it isn't even that low calorie. Plus almost no one in the developed world is suffering from not getting enough vitamins, mineral, or essential amino acids

To the contrary, many many people are vitamin or mineral deficient. Grains are extremely low in nutrient density now because their yield is so high.


So... you're agreeing with me?

"Overall, the U.S. population has good levels of vitamins A and D and folate in the body, but some groups still need to increase their levels of vitamin D and iron"

Vitamin D shortages primarily happen because you're dark skinned and live away from the tropics. Iron deficiencies are mostly because of heavy menstruation and blood disorders, and have nothing with a low amount of iron in grain compared with in historical times

Thank you to all who replied and proved my point. No one agrees on what is a healthy or unhealthy diet. Clearly sugar is bad except that after decades of study the only problem it causes is dental carries. The food myths are endless and no matter what you believe there is a majority that believes something else. There simply is no agreement on what is healthy and what is not.

There's a kernel of truth there but it's wrong that there is no agreement o what is healthy and what is not

No! Really! There is no agreement on what is a healthy diet and what is not. But it gets worse. Not only do the different factions disagree they disagree angrily. Even dieticians disagree and their professors disagree.. The natural and health food web sites disagree. The vegans disagree with the vegetarians and the meat eaters disagree with the grain and vegetable eaters. All of them can cite studies that prove them right and everyone else wrong and they do cite those studies as though it is irrefutable proof.

Can you point me to someone who thinks vegetables are unhealthy?

"Can you point me to someone who thinks vegetables are unhealthy?"

Sure. The Paleo advocates.

But you are missing the point if all you are doing is searching for some way to win the argument. Most people do not think that ALL vegetables are healthy and many even think that the way you prepare vegetables makes them unhealthy. But even in this they will disagree amongst themselves over the healthiness or unhealthiness of a particular vegetable. A simple potato is a good example. A potato is actually a very good source or vitamins and minerals as well as carbs and protein. And yet it is probably the least approved vegetable by those who define their life by their diet.

Sophisticated worldview you’ve got there, Ethan. Evil billionaire Kochs intent on destroying the poor for the sheer pleasure of it bankroll Alex, among others, to wage their propaganda war through all available media of communication. I suppose their motive for this war is so that Georgia Pacific can sell more paper towel dispensers to McDonald’s franchises? Congratulations, you’re the reason democracy doesn’t work.


What Nigel said! (More eloquently than I could have)

What is interesting to me is that food deserts are a thing that only those with upper middle education and IQ (those with BA’s) could believe in. High school drop out would laugh and anyone with a stem degree would require a lot of proof to believe something so unlikely.

The idea that folks eat twinkles because they do not have access to carrots, which and BTW carrots are much cheaper by volume and weight, could be possibly be true, but would be an extraordinary thing.

People like to eat things with sufficient amounts of one of three things (fat, sugar or salt).

Twinkies qualify, carrots do not.

Carrots are quite sweet, which is why (when pureed) they are one of the easiest foods to feed a 9 month old baby.

Exactly. It's something easy to describe and easy to believe. Like the Laffer curve.

Thanks to grade inflation and signaling, folks with Masters and Liberal Arts PhDs are wiling to believe these things now too.

Ethan, if you want to become well-informed, you should know that the explosion of the food desert myth is not new. Below is the NY Times from 5 years ago citing two studies showing this, as well as a Wired article showing an attempt to map food deserts that showed they're not real.


Dumb hippie liberals are ruining are country with there hippie nonsense.

An article in the BMJ twenty-odd years ago destroyed the daft idea of a food desert by the scientific procedure of walking about and looking.


In 2002 to note the 10th anniversary of the Rodney King Riots in the L.A., I went down to the Florence & Normandie neighborhood. The big chain supermarket that had been opened since the riots had an excellent selection of fresh produce.

What was different about it compared to suburban markets was that it had so much white bread:


I always assumed the difference is food deserts is relatively cheap vice that the poor can afford while the rich can spend money on other 'vices' and fun.


Also, planning horizons are totally different for the two groups.

Anyone who has spent time working on trying to improve healthy eating by the poor can tell you food deserts is not a significant contributor. I'm not surprised by the study, but it still would benefit society overall if we had less obesity.

But then, poor Asians somehow manage to shop at cheap supermarkets that offer fresh vegetables and seafood, which non-Asians are free to patronize. Shall we compare how different ethnic groups in neighborhoods not far from Asian supermarkets shop for food? I doubt you'd see many differences from the general pattern. And of course, this study does look at how different groups ship in middle and upper income neighborhoods.

This is a really telling point. Many poor immigrant communities cook their own food, from scratch.

Maybe the difference is that the cheap unhealthy processed food on the market caters to mainstream (mostly white) tastes. So it's a lot easier for Asians to opt for the raw produce and cook what they want instead of buying something in a box off the shelf.

Nah immigrants (e.g. Asians) just have a better culture and are more driven than the convergence of people and culture that is the American underclass. The truly poor in America are poor because they've earned it.

The issue isn't supply-side. Food takes time to prepare. A nuclear family has more bandwidth to prepare healthy food from scratch. A single mom, not-so-much.

Asian culture, with its emphasis on the extended-nuclear-family, have a huge advantage over other cultures.

The average bottom decile household has less than 1 full-time income earner and the modal household probably has none. The idea that these people are obese and unhealthy because they have no time to cook is as believable as the idea that they invest in lottery tickets because they've never heard of a savings account. These ideas are always spoken from a position of immense privilege, from a person who's never known a poor person except maybe in the position of someone the poor person lies to, in order to get things.

Just put the obese in camps.

Fat camps.

Fat camps with forced labor.

Fran Lebowitz commented that [rich] Californians apparently think that tofu makes the cocaine work better.

I think this is the most interesting comment in here.

If it's right though, then junk food is some kind of cheap and accessible commonly held escapism, which is also relatively socially acceptable (like alcohol or marijuana perhaps). Fair question is whether there's a higher consumption of vice goods among the poor (however we define that), or in fact whether the consumption of food as a vice is in fact considerably less harmful than alternative vices.

The difference between the eating habits of the poor and the rich, however defined, might be better explained by the amount of time each spends absorbing television advertising. NBA star Michael Jordan's pitch for McDonald's wasn't aimed at the food co-op customer.

>NBA star Michael Jordan’s pitch for McDonald’s

Thanks so much for clarifying that you were referring to the "NBA star" Michael Jordan. There could have been a lot of confusion with the 1920s Irish politician of the same name, but you pro-actively forged ahead and eliminated all doubt.

Actually Michael Jordan is a well known actor who starred in Creed and Fantastic Four and he doesn't play basketball.

Thanks so much for clarifying that you are Shazam the a-hole, rather than the fictional DC comics superhero.


What an arse-hole. I had no idea who Michael Jordan might be so I found "NBA star" helpful. It would have been even more helpful if I'd known what NBA means.

There's also Michael I. Jordan, a stat professor at Berkeley who's pretty well known in the field.

I imagine there was some time in the 1980s where he gave up and added the I.

Why are we so concerned about only food deserts when there are other deserts as well? There are many locations in the US without easy access to book stores, legitimate theaters, shooting ranges, fitness gyms and Tesla service centers (http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2017/10/tesla-service-centers.html).


I live in the middle of a dry sauna desert. The closest dry sauna is 30 minutes away at an LA fitness and I have to have a $50 a month membership to access it. Market failure.

Lack of shooting ranges?

I think as we've learned over the years almost anything can become a shooting range if you're in need of one.

There is no Mercedes, Tesla or Jaguar dealership within 60 miles of where I live. Health outcomes here, well, they are not good.

And yet food deserts are real and have real effects. I know because I’ve lived in them. West Harlem circa 2004: my apartment was a 20 minute walk from the nearest grocery store, which is a long walk while carrying heavy bags. Like most residents, I settled much of the time for supplies purchased from a local bodega, which meant canned foods, rice, corn tortillas, plantains, and the occasional onion or maybe even a green pepper or apple if it was available. Everything else was prepared foods. I had more spare time on my hands than most people in the area, many of whom were no doubt working long hours with long subway commutes. There had briefly been a grocery store closer to my place; it burned down. To me, the effects of the food desert were very clear. Perhaps that’s the 9 percent from the paper, but I suspect these researchers had an agenda and were steered by confirmation bias.

> "my apartment was a 20 minute walk from the nearest grocery store, which is a long walk while carrying heavy bags."

Wow, that almost sounds like something from Navy SEAL Hell Week. Amazing that you survived such an ordeal. Respect, dude.

A whole 20 minutes of moderate exercise. That's like, almost the recommended amount per day.


That is like 5 minutes on a bike, which I did for years. That is not a food desert. Most people have cars also.

In Harlem? Negative. Nobody has a car.
It's 5pm, 34° and dark, and I'm supposed to take my little kids and walk 20mins to the grocery store and back to get a couple bags of groceries for $46 every few days.
No..I'm probably thing to hit the bulletproof Chinese spot to get 2 orders of wings and fries plus a big tea in a wonton soup container AND dessert with a happy prediction for my tomorrow, for $7.50.

" I settled much of the time for supplies purchased from a local bodega, which meant canned foods"

But canned fruits and vegetables are not less nutritious:


"West Harlem circa 2004: my apartment was a 20 minute walk from the nearest grocery store"

Which is to say -- about a mile, right? By that standard, I'd guess that quite a high percentage of Americans live in food deserts (myself included), since the nearest supermarket is more than a mile away.

"...which is a long walk while carrying heavy bags"

I believe those folding carts for schlepping groceries may have been available even way back in '04 (possibly even back in 1904).

"...many of whom were no doubt working long hours with long subway commute"

No doubt some of those subway commutes were far longer than a mile, right? Were there no grocery stores anywhere near their work? Or near any stop they passed between home and work? Are we going to say that having to rely on public transport for shopping = food desert?

If a person can't be bothered to walk for 20 minutes a couple of times a week, I doubt that the availability of fresh produce is going to improve their health significantly.

Reminds me of the story about the guy who lost 300 lb by walking a mile to the grocery store and back every time he needed to eat.

"But canned fruits and vegetables are not less nutritious"

No significant difference between canned or fresh anything. Canning is merely a preservation method.

I suppose some canned things are higher in sodium but salt does not cause obesity.

My understanding is that canned does have somewhat less nutritional value due to the cooking process destroying nutrients. Frozen is better than canned.
But ANY sort of vegetables, canned or frozen, is still infinitely better than pizza and nachos. It doesn't have to be fresh and raw to be a massive improvement in diet.

Ah, food deserts. Google Kykotsmovi, Arizona. Tuba City is forty miles that way, Winslow about sixty that way. Both have magnificent grocery stores, modern corncucopias which feed thousands of people. In K-town there is a gas station, with a c-store, and in the back a couple young guys are running a pretty good little burrito grill. Probably fewer than twenty people live within what you'd call walking distance.

Meanwhile, there are those who move to actual food deserts (hint: they are often in or near deserts) on purpose. I met a non-Texan who retired to the Davis Mountains of Texas based on the criterion that it was at least 100 miles away from the nearest Wal-mart.

Yes, you were the 9%. Do you think most people in your desert wanted vegetables but couldn't get them?

There's a question of cause and effect. Were you and your neighbors not eating healthy fresh produce because there was no grocery store, or was there no grocery store because you and your neighbors were not eating healthy fresh produce? If there was a demand don't you think someone, e.g. your bodega, would have met that demand?

...higher income people often encounter the same lack of food markets in dense urban areas

pricey hi-rise condos ($300-800K) are very popular in center of my large Mid-West city, but nearest food/grocery markets are 4-5 miles distant; people pay extra to be close to work and the entertainment/cultural offerings in city center. But many new tenants are surprised they overlooked such a basic neighborhood feature as grocery shopping.
Of course, higher income people usually have cars... but parking a block away and hauling groceries uphill to a hi-rise is still a chore.

absence of grocery stores in a well populated area is direct evidence that it is non-economical for sellers to do business there. Has nothing to do with racism because members of the same ethniicity can (and normally do) readily open small food markets in their neighborhoods.

Just an anecdote, not data, but in response to "absence of grocery stores in a well populated area is direct evidence that it is non-economical for sellers to do business there." a local store of a major national chain CLOSED its door when the rate of shoplifting exceeded the profit margin. Didn't EXACTLY create a 'food desert', but instead oa walking in from the surrounding neighborhood, the residents in the area now have to cross a busy interstate to get to the nearest alternative, or go several blocks to get to a neghborhood market that has much more limited choices as higher prices.

Is it a 'desert' if you yourself rip up all the plants?

I'm convinced by your sample of one. That's not even verified.

... I simply responded to Picador's sample-of-one

do you have anything substantive to contribute here ??

When I lived in neighborhoods without reasonably priced and stocked grocery stores, I did a once-a-week food trip: a bus to the store, taxi ride home.

Yes, it cost two fares, and some time. BUT it was far less costly than daily shopping at the bodega, and the time spent doing it is recovered by avoiding the daily shopping.

I really doubt I'm the only one who has done this, as it's the obvious solution.

In any case, don't tell the New York Times that the "food desert" theory is bunk. For if you do, you might cause them to question the "women earn 77 cents" narrative. Or even go back and look at their execrable coverage of the Duke Lacrosse "rape" story.

Agenda, political agenda, toujours agenda! What good are data and reason when one as an agenda-driven narrative?

20 minute walk is a desert! That is how spoiled and clueless some people are nowadays... This post tells you more about victim-culture than any research.

You couldn't afford a bicycle?

Nowadays you even have UBER to drive you the 1-2 miles, probably at a cost of ~$5, or zipcar, or grocery delivery services.

Also, since when is being more a mile away from a grocer a "food desert"

Get over yourself.

The actually definition of food deserts is that the grocery store has to be within a short walking distance. Defined as less than a mile. Yes, seriously. I guess under the assumption that taking the bus is too onerous to expect people to handle?

The food desert problem won't be solved until we have universal government funded Meals on Wheels. As long as there is a vending machine closer than fresh food, people are going to be subjected to irresistable incentives to eat unhealthy.

people are going to be subjected to irresistable incentives to eat unhealthy what they think tastes good and is easy.
Minor fix.

An irresistable incentive?

Rich people work much longer hours than poor people (on average). I don't think I've ever lived within a mile of a grocery store.

A 20 minute walk on a flat city sidewalk with well lit crosswalks? How could you have survived such horror?

Wow.... Alex dares touch upon the idea that the poor can actually make their own choices.

Sure, he's several years late in denouncing the absurdity of "food deserts," but you have to wonder where this keen new insight will lead him.

As someone who grew up poor and shopping at Asian markets, I’m flabbergasted. It worked for my family, but only because:

1. My parents had the time, reliable vehicle, and gas money it took to drive to the nearest Asian market, which was 45 minutes away and in another country.

2. They spoke the language all the signs in the market were written in.

3. They left me at home to cook and look after my siblings while they worked menial jobs and did the shopping in Canada. I was 6.

4. We knew how to cook those vegetables because they were part of our food culture.

And even then, sometimes the stars didn’t align and we got McDonald’s, because sometimes even with veggies at home, the choice between a meal now (often our first of the day) or dinner in an hour was easy.

There are choices you make under ideal circumstances and there are choices made under duress. Availability of food is only one factor.

1. My parents had the time, reliable vehicle, and gas money it took to drive to the nearest Asian market, which was 45 minutes away and in another country.

There was no other store selling food within 45 minutes of your place?

Your parents had to drive to another country for food? Was this in the US, because the paper Alex cites is about so-called "food deserts" in this country.

You suppose their parents might have driven to Canada for work from some country that wasn't the US?

If her parents lived in some remote area of the US, where the closest store was an Asian market in Canada 45 minutes away, then her experience is exceptional. How many Americans would fit that definition? .01%? .001%?

At first I thought WA, somewhere along the I5 but that couldn't be it. Theres a good chain of Asian groceries and the prices are quite compelling. Somewhere outside of Buffalo NY?

Maybe Point Roberts, WA (Google it).

... so Asians are generally successful in America and Blacks are generally not so.
White racism is present against both, but obviously is not the factor blocking success.

Let's not forget that poor Asians not only have to contend with whatever racism there is, but often barely speak English or know the customs -- unlike Blacks.

Isn't there also an NBER study or something by Wolferts that compared consumption among the poor and Asians below a certain income level were still willing to spend on kids education while Blacks were more likely to buy consumption items like nice clothing and sports shoes?

So, this is about blacks? There are no white people who live in food deserts and are obese?

Didn't know that.

You can't legally bring most food across the border back to the US:

"Many agriculture products are prohibited entry into the United States from certain countries because they may carry plant pests and foreign animal diseases. All agriculture items must be declared and are subject to inspection by a CBP Agriculture Specialist at ports of entry to ensure they are free of plant pests and foreign animal diseases. Prohibited or restricted items may include meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, seeds, soil and products made from animal or plant materials. For generally allowed food items please visit USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service."


It would seem that your unique experience actually serves more readily as a data point for one of the paper's conclusions: that the outside impression of a "food desert" is best explained not by unavailability of healthful food but by cultural choices. 1. Your parents shopped at a distant Asian market where they could read all the signs. 2. You ate healthful produce from it because preparation of that produce was part of your food culture. It's not clear from your narrative whether your parents' choice was based on necessity (there was literally nowhere to buy any food at all) or cultural choices (the food they preferred was distant but other food was available closer), but I'd put long odds on the latter.

As others have pointed out, it's a vanishingly small percentage of people living in the US who *must* drive (rather than *choose to* drive) 45 minutes to reach groceries. My husband once lived in a real food desert - with an aunt and uncle who were teachers living on a remote ranch on a reservation in South Dakota, where the nearest *actual* place to buy food was about 45 minutes on dirt roads and the nearest supermarket was several hours. (Of course they had a large kitchen garden - everyone in that circumstance did, there). I, on the other hand, lived in the other, a "food desert mirage": my parents used to load us into the car once a month and drive from Iowa City (where there are of course many grocery stores!) to Rock Island, IL, several hours away, because (in a stunning display of economic naivete) they believed that prices at the commissary there (Dad was military) were so much cheaper that they justified the drive and the inconvenience.

I once ordered the Veggie Burger at a Burger King in Covington LA and helped the cashier win a jackpot for actually selling one. They sold about 3 a year she told me. It's since been discontinued.

I once ordered a salad from Dominos for my wife. I stopped to pick it up on the way home, and it was clear that this cashier had never sold one before. He had no idea where they were stored and had to ask around behind the counter.

That seems surprising. It might be particular to Dominoes. I worked at various Pizza places in two different stints at college. Both of them routinely sold Salads. Oh it was probably only 1% of sales or so, but it amounted to a handful of salads every busy night.

That being said, the most clueless person at any pizza place will start their job as a cashier. And turn over is high.

Alex wrote "I feel that in recent years I am reading a lot of papers that aim massive firepower on weak hypotheses."

Don't you think this is because we seem to be overwhelmed with weak but popular hypotheses that seem to have never been exposed to that firepower at all?

What passes for "Politically Incorrect" these days is shockingly bland.

It's "politically incorrect" in the fields of sociology, geography, and urban planning. Food deserts are unquestionable dogmas in those fields.

Oh, and this paper acknowledges food deserts. The normal explanation for food deserts is that the large grocery chains, particularly those that specialize in "healthy" foods, deliberately avoid opening grocery stores in poor and/or racial/ethnic minority neighborhoods. The usual comparison is to the red-lining tactics of the early- and mid- 20th century where non-whites had a difficult time obtaining loans for real estate in largely white neighborhoods. The "controversy" in this paper is the conclusion that food deserts are mostly a supply-and-demand consequence, rather than a racist plot. The leftist social scientist would likely counter the findings of this paper by suggesting that the impoverished and minority populations' demand is largely driven by structural inequalities.

In reality, there are no "food deserts". That's an ideologically driven phrase. At most the US suffers from some urban areas that have access to food similar to a rural area. Even that's an exaggeration. Most rural dwellers have to travel farther and spend more time to go grocery shopping than those in urban areas.

"Why the poor choose to eat differently than the rich is an interesting and important question but one more amenable to answers focusing on culture, education and history than price and income. "
Weird sentence coming from an Econ prof ...

Maybe the poor giving themselves obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease by way of their deliberate and effortful food preferences, especially that those bad preferences are more expensive than alternatives, is a little at odds with the whole homo economicus thing.

It is a strange sentence indeed. The whole post is pretty strange, and at least a little bit contradictory. Don't economists of Taberrok's persuasion prefer to emphasize the significance of supply-slide factors? Seems to me the idea of a food desert points to inadequate supply. So it's more about demand. Fine, makes sense to me. Not sure why the condescending tone is necessary. I'm also not really sure how attributing the food choices of the poor to their dimwittedness, ignorance, and cultural backwardness is less insulting or agency-denying than the food desert explanation.

This is literally not politically incorrrect and seems like a strawman, outside of socialist types.

I'd say mainstream policy is well aware that much of demand is "explained by education, nutrition knowledge, and regional preferences" - this is in line even with Michelle Obama's program or the food pyramid program which tried to shift preferences and nutrition knowledge - no bigger paragons of mainstream politically correct wholesomeness.

It's not a straw man. I volunteer at a local food bank, and the management there quite often describes helping the poor overcome life in "food deserts" as one of their mandates.

Do a Google search for "food justice" sometime and tell me this idea isn't mainstream.

Why the poor choose to eat differently than the rich is an interesting and important question but one more amenable to answers focusing on culture, education and history than price and income.

George Orwell figured it a century ago:

Now compare this list with the unemployed miner's budget that I gave
earlier. The miner's family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables
and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less
than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on
sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The
half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials
for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins
of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and
margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet.
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like
oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter
to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it
would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do
such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on
brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less
money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A
millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an
unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of
the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say
when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to
eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is
always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth
of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and
we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are
at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you
to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than
brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery
that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the
English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a
temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

Good comment.

Yes, interesting quote. The take away line:

"And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t...When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food."

Eating is a major way for coping with stress for humans. Add on top of the fact that eating healthy is a major investment in time, money, and will (educating oneself on what to eat, honing cooking skills, changing habits, travel time, etc). Being in a 'food desert', which I'm guessing typically correlates with high stress environments, only exacerbates this problem. I'd be interested in a behavioral economics/neuroscience study that looks at understanding the effect of stress on food choices (and other choices as well).

Still, it has something to do with the eating culture that you start with.
In times of stress, people tend to fall back on "comfort foods". In American culture "comfort foods" tend to be things like mashed potatoes, pizza, and mac-and-cheese. They are foods that contain a lot of simple carbs. But maybe if you grow up eating something else your comfort foods will be different. (Though it is heard for me to imagine brown rice and raw carrots as a comfort food).

"And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food."

Except it's not quite true. I was once a low-income grad student and knew lots of other grad students similarly situated. Approximately none of them ate unhealthy, fast-food and convenience-food dominated diets because of their low incomes (in fact, I expect our diets were probably healthier then -- I can't quite remember the last time we made curried lentils). But culturally, of course, we were never part of the working class regardless of low incomes. Class culture is far more important than income. Elvis became a multi-millionaire but continue to eat stuff like this:


And was about as slim, healthy and long-lived as you might have expected.

I was once a low-income grad student..). But culturally, of course, we were never part of the working class

And presumably there was light at the end of the tunnel. It's one thing to be a poor college student or struggling with your first post college job - it's quite another when it's likely that unrelenting poverty and privation will follow you to the grave.

So about 5% of the U.S. population after transfers is below the poverty line and most people move around a lot between different income deciles over their lifetime, so how many people does this apply to? Certainly a lot less than the number of obese people, for sure.

Good comment from Orwell, who was for a while a policeman in southeast Asia (Burma I believe; his short story about the white man forced to shoot a temporarily insane work elephant there is priceless). Here in the Philippines, the poor prefer white bread, meat, sugar, absolutely no veggies unless "chopsuey" (cabbage, string beans, etc, but heavily seasoned and usually with meat or shrimp added), and lots of cheap brandy called Emperidor Light. Their squash (Mother Hubbard aka calabasa) is excellent, but largely ignored. Even if the veggies are dirt cheap, which they are, the poor will queue for hours in front of the fast food burger and fried chicken and unhealthy sugary soda shop called Jollibees.

This is a little one-sided; presumably there's some mutual causal influence in the connection between poverty and low-time-horizon decision-making.

This. The poor are obese for the same reasons they are poor. The failure to forsee the long term consequences of their choices, and/or the inability to resist making those choices anyway.

Well there are many more obese people than there are poor people

At what point though do they not have the right. In the modern era of EBT and subsidized healthcare someone else's health really does become your business. When one earns their own keep, one can eat how they want. When eating unhealthy puts a burden on your fellow man, that man has a right to tell you what to eat.

Here is a link if you want the whole chapter:


Such was life in Stanley Baldwin's America.

1) This very study shows that the mere act of exposing underserved communities to healthy food reduces nutritional inequality by nearly 10%, but most importantly... 2) this data does not capture the other great benefits - namely economic - of getting appropriate food retail in these neighborhoods. To the extent that the ultimate way to help low-income communities not be low income anymore, healthy food financing is a great, dare I say evidenced-based tool that is helping a lot of people with minimal taxpayer investment.

I work on this for a living and have to deal with every genius who thinks something along the lines of “the real solution is education.” You can be taught how to cook Brussels sprouts all day long, but that’s pointless if you have no practical way to buy them. In other words, the availability of healthy food is a necessary but not sufficient condition in changing diets. Posts like this amount to a big “harrumph” that flies in the face of the actual work being done on the ground in cities like Houston, Philadelphia and News Orleans where incentivized retail is working and working very well.

incentivized retail

I think that I can guess what that means.

I would hope so, since that is the heart of what we are talking about. https://www.reinvestment.com/success-story/pennsylvania-fresh-food-financing-initiative/

I love how it's a "success story" because they "succeeded" in giving millions of dollars away. It's like all those educational initiatives that "succeeded" in giving out the ipods to the kids like they said they would. Oh wait, were we supposed to be measuring the outcome of the program??

“Oh wait, were we supposed to be measuring the outcome of the program??”

Uh, yes. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. In this case, the outcomes are that the public investment was leveraged 5x over with private dollars, resulting in 88 new stores, over 5,000 new jobs, and a drastic increase in the amount of healthy, affordable food for families that did not have this before.

My point was that how much money you gave away is not the outcome you should be measuring.

You spent $180M of public/private money and got 88 "new" stores and 5,000 "new" jobs and displaced X number of dollar stores and this is a success in your mind? And some unquantifiable "drastic" increase in healthy and affordable food that you forgot to measure?

How many lives could you save if you put that $180M into a charitable campaign that actually provided net benefits? Millions, right? Maybe you could have avoided the extinction of the human race.

There are three fairly subtle things to note here:
First, "nutritional inequality" does not equal "malnutrition". It just means the gap in nutrition between rich and poor.
Second, the study says that only 9% of the relationship between nutritional inequality and income is explained by a supply side model. In other words, poor people will eat marginally more like rich people. It all depends on how big that nutritional gap is. It's not like rich people eat perfect diets here.
Third, the study is a structural model not empirical research on actual nutrition in actual poor communities. "Our key identifying assumption is that these geographic differences in product group prices due to differences in the presence of specific chains are independent of unobserved differences in local product group tastes."
In other words, the study assumes that local product group tastes aren't determining which chains with which price advantages are in those markets. I.e. that the supermarket with the price advantage in pizza won't be more likely to locate in the community that prefers pizza, than in the community that prefers apples. Obviously, you have to simplify the model somehow because the recursive effects of modelling demand driving supply might get hairy, but the real effect could easily be smaller than what the model suggests.

I appreciate that, but my point remains that the discussion is glossing over the very relevant fact that publicly incentivized (healthy) food retail is working great, despite all the theories as to why it shouldn’t. For some reason we collectively overthink the “food desert” (or whatever you want to call it) problem, when the “solution” (or a major component of it) is quite simple, effective, and demonstrably so.

What tells you that incentivized retail is working great?
You have to show that people's diets are meaningfully changing, not just that stores respond to incentives and put more produce on the shelf.

A grocery store staying in business in a “food desert” is itself enough evidence of success. These are businesses that would not exist *but for* the initial investment in the first place. Typically, these businesses then attract other businesses and can serve as an economic spark to areas that need them. They can also provide upwards of 200 easy-to-access jobs in an area that lacks job opportunity. We look at healthy food financing as “economic benefit with a side effect of food access”; not the other way around.

And there is evidence that this improves diet, though like I said earlier these interventions alone probably aren’t enough to drastically reshape diets. But good luck finding any one single policy intervention that does meet that standard.

OK, now you're not making an argument about nutrition, but about government subsidizing supermarkets to locate in areas where they aren't otherwise economically viable.
What about the opportunity cost of those subsidies? What other businesses might have come into being if those resources weren't being used to subsidize supermarkets?

“What other businesses might have come into being if those resources weren’t being used to subsidize supermarkets?”

We know the answer to that question: typically, Dollar Generals, McDonald’s, and PayDay Loan establishments. The whole point of healthy food financing is to reverse the market failure that occurs in these neighborhoods and revitalize them into areas where people have the opportunity to be healthy. And it works; that’s the important part. Like I said, all of these articles amount to a bunch of theories as to why something should not work despite the ample, on-the-ground evidence to the contrary. It is tiresome, to be frank (not you personally; I am enjoying this discussion).

There are many examples of well-intentioned yet ineffective social programs that deserve further scrutiny. Healthy food financing is not one of those.

"There are many examples of well-intentioned yet ineffective social programs that deserve further scrutiny. Healthy food financing is not one of those."

Well, that's settled the, Christopher Walker says so. You heard it here first, conclusive proof that government giving millions of dollars away to grocers to displace dollar stores gets a HUGE return on investment!! We should invest TRILLIONS!!! Then we'll all have good jobs and there will be no more poor people!!

The program ended in 2010. Are the results you got self sustaining now? Or will they last only as long they are subsidized?

Yes, these projects are given an initial - not ongoing - economic subsidy. The Pennsylvania program has been widely successful with over 88 new projects in the state. They’re looking to recapitalize it as we speak based in large part on its demonstrable success.

Its demonstrable success in giving millions of taxpayer dollars away to political cronies? Wake me up when you have evidence that someone's life was improved other than the person you gave money to so that a grocery store could displace a dollar general

You don't know what "market failure" is. People in poor neighborhoods eat fatty food because they WANT to eat fatty food. By subsidizing veggies what they are doing is essentially to force these populations to consume the types of food they wouldn't consume if they could choose how to spend that money. In other words, it is pareto inferior to the market equilibrium. What you are advocating is fascism: "there poor people are too dumb to choose what types of food are really good for them so we, the smart people, should use the government to force they to consume the correct types of food, we do this by subsidizing these foods using money extracted from the population through coercive contributions (i.e. taxation)".


Food Availability + Cooking Skill != Desire For Brussels Sprouts
Food Availability + Cooking Skill != Time For Shopping + Time For Cooking

"I work on this for a living "

I've got a better idea: instead of paying you and all the other people who work on this for a living, how about we just give you all that money to capitalize a chain of low-priced grocery stores so poor people have some place to buy lean proteins and vegetables. You could call it "Aldi" or "Piggly-Wiggly" or "Ingles" or "Save-A-Lot."

Maybe your last name is Walter. Then you could call it "Walter's Mart," or just "Walmart" for short.

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised about wholesale food costs, and there are lots of people in the areas you're talking about who could use a job.

Unfortunately the money I get paid wouldn’t go very far....

The article claims make sense: It's all down to supplu and demand. Howeverthe supporting explanation in the post is kind of dumb,

"Try an Asian Supermarket for cheap produce" might be a good answer in Virgina or SF, but you might find that outside of a handful of cities, if you have an Asian supermarket available at all, it's probably a good drive away. Their locations are also guided by supply and demand, and guess what? Cities that don't have big Asian communities don't have that many Asian supermarkets. Ultimately the people that have inconvenient choices are those that differ widely enough from their neighbor's preferences, and is yet another piece of making sure we are socially segregated, if not always just racially segregated.

Hispanic supermarkets are also good for cheap produce, in my experience.
When I lived in Texas and Arizona, I went to the hispanic grocery for cheap produce, when I lived in N. Virginia, I went to the asian supermarket.

I know a couple such supermercados which run shuttles for shoppers.

That would be market confirmation that transportation can be a blocker on such healthy and frugal purchases. And good luck to you if you are out of supermercado shuttle range.

If the problem is cost, the local convenience store isn't going to be any cheaper than the produce at the mainstream white supermarket.

What I am saying is: if one person has to wait for a shuttle to the supermercado, and the other hops in a car and goes to Whole Foods, there is a very different availability, even if both distances are just a couple miles.

And I ask, what if there is no shuttle?

You're hopping between availability and price.
Convenience stores are available but not cheap.
Any kind of grocery store is going to be cheaper but less available.
If you're waiting for the shuttle to get to the supermercado, it's because you're really worried about price. If you can't get on the supermercado shuttle, your next best option is going to be the conventional grocery store, NOT the convenience store. Nobody's going to say "I was forced to shop at 7/11 because I couldn't get to the Asian/Hispanic grocery and the produce at Shoppers was too expensive. "

Do you guys heard of Aldi? It's like "mainstream white supermarket" but it's super cheap and has a bag of tomatoes or lettuce for 99 cents.

Low price + easy transportation access = high availability

Well, by that standard convenience stores don't have high availability because they are expensive. The high price of convenience stores cancels out the fact that you have to go further to get the cheap produce at the grocery store. But it's hardly a shocking fact that you might have to travel further to get the best prices on produce, or anything else.
The argument about food deserts is really distinct from the claim that healthy foods are more expensive. Nobody's claiming that the price of kale at the 7/11 is unaffordable. They're saying that you can't get kale at the 7/11, and you can't get to the supermarket easily. If you could get to the conventional supermarket, the produce prices are affordable. The point that asian and hispanic grocers are even cheaper is just a illustration of the (separate) point that it's not expensive to eat healthy.

Almost any culture that isn’t American eats more produce than we do, so any ethnic store is pretty good. Here in good ole Oklahoma there are many Asian and Mexican markets that have a lot of great produce for very cheap. Of course when I go I’m the only white eye in the place, even the ones that are in mixed racial neighborhoods that have plenty of whites.

Ah, did MR ever address this?


Yes, the free market is responding to needs, but then you are living on the Dollar General menu.

Do these Asians supermarkets spring up at random? They are there because even poor Asians demand veggies. If all groups evinced the same demand it is likely such stores would appear. I also think you can buy quite a lot of cheap food at normal groceries if you wish. Rice and homemade lentil soup, and the cheapest chicken or ground beef on sale made for easily refrigerated multi-day meals for me when at university and mostly shopping at a regular, not particularly cheap supermarket in the Midwest.

To come late and repeat a few themes from above:

1. I agree that the narrow "food desert" idea has been refuted.

2. I agree that a certain sort of Whole Foods shopper may believe it.

3. I agree that transportation is still an issue

4. I think "stressed choices" are an important factor

You can get a lot more poor people than on the dollar menu than rich, just with that, and no "desert."

But color me un-surprised. The results are obvious.

What is interesting to me is that food deserts are a thing that only those with upper middle education and IQ (those with BA's) could believe in. High school drop out would laugh anyone with a stem degree would require a lot of proof to believe something so unlikely.

I eat twinkles because I do not have access to carrots which and BTW yje carrots are much cheaper by volume and weight.

A 9% decrease from a new store seems like a pretty significant decrease for an intervention that is not that costly compared to the alternatives. Opening a healthy food market seems much easier than somehow changing culture or education in food desert areas.

Resorting to complaints about culture seems like the ol' futility thesis rearing its ugly head. If there aren't better alternatives out there, it seems like policies promoting grocers to open in food deserts plausibly improve the health of people who are poor. (Though I'm not opposed to people trying with education or health information; hopefully there will be more experimentation in this area.)

Maybe someone should do a cost/benefit analysis. Otherwise why don't they open a whole foods next door to me to make it easier for me to eat healthy foods, it probably would improve my healthy food consumption by at least 9%

I think this is the right idea. Seems like the study authors have a normative idea that 9% is small. Maybe it's a huge gain in life years for the people affected.

This is a common result found using scanner data, which is the only way one can do a national study. We found the same results. The only problem that scanner data under-samples poor people, so it is difficult draw conclusions about particularly deprived area. Food desert problem is really a car access problem, one somebody has a car there are no food deserts. The car access rate is over 90%, and more if we subtract places like NYC. I would pay more attention of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh study where a subsidized supermarket entered the market under plausible exogeneity. The result is no diet improvement. On the other hand, area specific studies can reach different conclusions, like David Weatherspoon work in Detroit, but it is difficult to generalize from them.

Has anyone done this with FoodAPS yet?

Yes... See the link just below.

Here are the PA studies:

'New Neighborhood Grocery Store Increased Awareness of Food Access But Did Not Alter Dietary Habits or Obesity,' S. Cummins, E. Flint, and S.A. Matthews, Health Affairs
“Diet and Perceptions Change With Supermarket Introduction in Food Desert, But Not Because of Supermarket Use,”, T. Dubowitz, M. Ghosh-Dastidar, D.A. Cohen, R. Beckman, E.D. Steiner, G.P. Hunter, K.R. Florez, C. Huang, C.A. Vaughan, J.C. Sloan, S.N. Zenk, S. Cummins and R.L. Collins, Health Affairs, 34(11): 1858-1868, 2015

As for the FoodAPS there are some working papers. A study was published that shows that consumers often go to more distance stores if they offer lower prices, more variety, etc.:
Food Store Choices of Poor Households: A Discrete Choice Analysis of the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS). https://doi.org/10.1093/ajae/aaw009. FoodAPS has a very good coverage of poor households (much better than in the scanner data studies), but it is only 5000 households and the interaction of poverty, no car access and low food access produces a pretty small sample.

"a subsidized supermarket entered the market under plausible exogeneity. The result is no diet improvement. "

Sorry Ilya, Christopher Walker says that can't be true

A job market paper making many of the points discussed here...

Not sure about all of this study, but I have a problem with a couple of things.

"27 studies from 10 countries met the inclusion criteria."

Ok, so if we are applying this to the US, why are there 9 other countries included to show "healthy food is not especially expensive" as this study did?

And then why is this relevant, "The food deserts idea was especially implausible for America because Americans spend less of their income on food consumed at home (6%) than any other nation" ? You are comparing money spent throughout the world with money spent in "food deserts" when you are not considering the amount of money earned by people in "food deserts".

It also might be nice to figure out how many hours a week the people that have the money to eat healthier foods, have to spend shopping and preparing healthier foods.

Now, that is not to say that "food deserts" are real, but that this study has more than a lot of holes.

You post makes sense in urban neighborhoods. But in rural areas, it can truly be difficult to get healthier food.

No it's not. You can drive around rural areas and see people selling healthy food from the back of a truck or at a roadside stand. For that matter, I've never seen a grocery store in a rural area that didn't sell chicken, ground beef, eggs, potatoes, and vegetables. If you really do live so far out in the sticks or so deep in the hood that there is literally no grocery stores for miles, you need to move. Or have less kids. Or travel to the nearest lake, hop on a raft, and hold up a sign that says "REFUGEE" so Lutheran Social Services will feed you. Something.

People have a hilariously backward-looking view of the modern poor.

Just walk outside...

"Or travel to the nearest lake, hop on a raft, and hold up a sign that says “REFUGEE” so Lutheran Social Services will feed you. Something."

lol, way to defeat your own argument.

"Why the poor choose to eat differently than the rich is an interesting and important question but one more amenable to answers focusing on culture, education and history than price and income."

Because they are mind controlled by Big Business and K Street.

"Because they are mind controlled..." seems like an implication that it would take very tortuous reasoning to arrive at.

The implication to me seems more akin to: "If you grew up in a household where mom/dad/caregiver didn't cook, the expected outcome is that you won't know how to cook."

Ockhams Razor

They have potatoes wrapped in plastic that you cook in the microwave. Is there any food you cannot make in a microwave? You can bake a cake in the microwave... anything.

How about money?

"If you want to eat healthy in America, don’t expect government subsidies to help. The most federally subsidized foods are heavily processed, and diets rich in them may be having profound negative effects on health, suggests a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions looked at what 10,000 Americans reported eating in a single day, from 2001 to 2006. They then calculated how much of their diets were made up of food subsidized by the government, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock. While those may sound healthy, they’re typically not eaten in their whole-food form; rather, they’re turned into cattle feed or refined and converted into sweeteners (like high fructose corn syrup) and processed fatty foods.

“In the U.S. and many other places, an excess of subsidies in these areas ends up leading to a conversion into foods like refined grains and high calorie juices, soft drinks with corn sweeteners and high fat meats,” says Dr. Ed Gregg, chief of the CDC’s epidemiology and statistics branch in the diabetes division. “It’s basically the way that they’re used that ends up being detrimental.”

Even though these are not the foods the government tells us to eat with their dietary guidelines, they’re the foods the government makes cheap. More than half of Americans’ calories came from subsidized foods, the study authors found. In the research group’s prior work, this hasn’t proven to be a good thing; diets full of subsidized food were rich in dairy, carbohydrates and meat and low in fruits, vegetables and overall quality. Younger, poorer, less educated people eat vastly more quantities of subsidized food, the same group of researchers found."


"Calories are cheap, nutrition is expensive."
Tom Colicchio

" “In fact, we have enough food to feed everybody in this country double the calories they would need to lead a healthy life,” Silverbush said. “But we have issues where people can’t afford that food because certain policies are in place that make it very, very difficult for people to afford healthy food. We’ve subsidized corn, high-fructose corn syrup, additives, all sorts of things that contribute to very unhealthy food being cheap in the marketplace. We don’t subsidize fruits and vegetables. That’s an example — and one example of many — where intelligent policy could really go a long way in helping end food insecurity and malnutrition and obesity in this country.”

“Fifteen percent of the farm business gets 85 percent of the subsidies,” Colicchio said. “Big Ag are really taking most of the subsidies that are out there, and small family farms are actually getting left out.” "


Fruits and vegetables are dirt cheap regardless of subsidies

You don't shop much, do you?



Where I'm at carrots, onions, cabbages are about 60 to 70 cents a pound. Broccoli $1.50 to $2.00 a pound. If you spend $1.50 a day for a pound of veggies that would be $45 a month

Exactly. EMchael has been e-brainwashed by the idiocy of the modern social sciences. Veggies and rice are very cheap and affordable. Even pricey Whole Foods sells massive tubs of pre-washed organic lettuce for $6.00 in the major metro I live in, that’s enough to make 6 huge salads and costs about as much as a frozen pizza these days. Other veggies like sweet potatoes, cabbage and broccoli are much cheaper.

I see. So what is the yield on a pound of carrots? About 60%, so you divide the price by .60 and get the price of the edible carrot as $1 a pound. A pound of carrots contains 186 calories. A person needs around 2000 calories a day. So they need to eat more than ten pounds of carrots to reach that amount.

That's $10 a day if you just eat carrots. Sorry, but are $4.10 a day in the red from $1.90 a meal.

You don't eat the vegetables as your primary calorie source. Rice and beans do good for that. So does ground turkey (still $.99/lb last time I went shopping last weekend, and you can use every bit of that).

Let's do an experiment in healthy living.

A family of two making $24,000 a year has an estimated $350 for their food budget per month. http://www.budgetinginthefunstuff.com/an-actual-2000-per-month-budget/

Tell your family that you will live on $350 a month for your food bill, and then do some shopping to see how your food selection changes.

Merry Christmas. By the way, the water heater just broke.

Is that after they pay for an $5 Uber to pick up their groceries?


It's a funny budget because it allocates only $20 a month for health insurance.

Oh, and Michael, you might want to look up some research on service areas for Uber services, where you will find that they do not typically serve poor areas, or if they do, have long wait times.

Merry Christmas.

No, my attempt at humor was a comment above regarding taking an Uber home with the groceries.

And for two years in school I drove a cab in Philly at night, I am well aware of the lack of services in poor areas. And that was more than 40 years ago.

And yet they budget $100 per month for cable/phone ...


As an experiment, I propose that you do without internet access and a phone.

All those in favor, say "Aye."

Hearing no objections, the "Ayes" have it.

Would they substitute to less expensive foods like beans and rice and canned veggies???? Would they grow their own food???????????????

Humbug! Unlike upper middle class snobs, Scrooge knows how to be frugal with the food and housing budget (which probably does not include owning a house).

I spend less than 150 dollars a month on food and I have perfectly healthy food consumption.

Actually you can get a fully balanced diet without going out shopping by spending 200 dollars a month on Soylent powder delivered by mail.

"culture, education and history"

That's an unusual way to spell 'genetics'.

Food deserts always seemed like a weak explanation. Still an environmental explanation isn't crazy considering the obesity epidemic is so new.

My bet is something like the development of hyper-palatable foods (or antibiotics or high fructose corn syrup or cheap carbohydrates or ...) creating a situation where you need to have high willpower/IQ to avoid getting fat. Looking back at the current moment, I think people are going to see a lot of that those types of situations (including cognitively challenging TV shows, and quickly developing and relatively difficult to follow social rules) as epiphenomena of inequality. I have no clue how to fix the obesity epidemic though.

It's probably the Trump diet of Big Mac, French Fries, and Diet Coke.

You dont have to be poor to have a bad diet, but it helps in limiting better choices.

Two people can eat quite adequately off $350/month. You'll eat a lot of chicken, potatoes and cabbage but you will have all the nutrients you need.

$1.90 food cost per meal is quite adequate? Don't spend much time shopping or cooking, do you?

I've been poor. When I'm old I'll be poor. My hale and hearty parents are on fixed incomes in a small rural town and spend less than that a month on groceries. I just checked on them--no beriberi, no scurvy, no distended bellies.

This is a stupid debate every time it comes up.

One thing that would really give the poor a lot of bang for their buck would be to roll back sales taxes, but that would jeopardize the pensions of all those good, wise bureaucrats the State employs supposedly to ease the lives of the poor.

Talk about innumerate.

How many states tax food for home consumption? How many that do so tax at lower rates than normal sales tax, and how many rebate taxes collected on food for home consumption?

Hit google. Or call your parents.

Huh. So sales taxes really aren't that regressive and there's no poverty-premium on groceries.

Nice admission that your post was absolutely innumerate. Oh. sales taxes are regressive, no sales taxes on groceries means there is no regressive sales tax on those groceries.

Nice the way you take 1+1 and try it make it 22.

His comment didn't have any numbers in it, how could it be innumerate?

Meh, I can spend way less than 350 dollars and eat beef and pork. You guys don't know anything about buying groceries.

Anti, From another source, the average US family of 4 pays $871 per month for food. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/08/02/how-much-should-you-budget-groceries/529006001/

So in other words, $220 per month per person is average without even trying to be frugal.

Why do you assume these people are not trying to be frugal?

Okay, AVERAGE American frugality. The average American is certainly not an extreme couponer or something. Giving that we've just been discussing how the average American guzzles diet Pepsi and Tide laundry detergent like there's no tomorrow. I'm sure that $220 can get down to $175 without too much trouble. In college I got $120/mo which was plenty.

Because average by formulation includes everyone from young adults buying sirloins because hey, Thursday night football, to retirees armed with the sales circulars and an envelope full of coupons.

We are actually nearing the point where Scarcity in terms of life essentials has been practically eliminated.

I think a certain class of liberal misses the good old days, fancying that consumptive street urchins are still wandering around Victorian London begging for a tuppence in their cap. Same sort of sappy sentiment over "refugees," who used to be Jews and Slavs fleeing with babushka and the children four hours ahead of mass execution instead of young, healthy men wearing wristwatches and Adidas track shoes trading text messages with their friends in Europe.

So $218/person per month, and that's average consumption, not pinching pennies, in a country with median income of $57K a year. Like I said, this is an innumerate debate. We can't even find malnutrition in the US outside of people who are completely non-functional and require institutional care, so we make up "food insecurity" and "food deserts."

'We can’t even find malnutrition in the US'

Don't worry, when we completely eliminate school programs to provide meals, you can point to the fact that it is only a small number of clearly deserving children who are malnourished.

AG is totally right on this. "Food Deserts" are a made up problem for people who have an irrational need to blame everything on capitalism and the free market. We pretty much don't have hunger any more because capitalism has made food so cheap, so we need new problems to blame on evil corporations.

Or, you could say that the some have an irrational need to blame the poor

For everything,

Given that capitalism and a free market necessarily results in no hunger anymore

Because food is so cheap.

Hazel, sounds a little funny when you put it that way, but that's what you are saying.

Merry Christmas. I won't expect anything for Tiny Tim, though.

I don't have an irrational need to blame the poor. I am a reluctant observer of the fact that most of the poor today have various behavioral problems rooted in psychology, whether it's overt mental illness, addition, personality disorders, impulse control problems, or any number of other psychological issues.
Making sure that Tiny Tim gets enough food to avoid being malnourished might involve acknowledging that the reason his mother doesn't feed him right is because she's an alcoholic who spends her paycheck on booze and not because market failures make it hard for her to afford fresh produce.

Umm, this paper, which has some serious flaws I have pointed out (understandable considering the complexity of the problem) states that 9% of the problem is caused by food deserts.

So it is not made up according to this paper.

Didn't some ex-wife of a hedge-fund hotshot ask for $50k a month from her ex to cover food? Be careful with averages. You know what happens to them when Bill Gates walks in the room.

Having read all the comments (!), I think the keys to improving the diets of the poor are cooking skill and spare time. While some poor people are unemployed and lazy, most are rushing from job to job or school, are the sole caretakers of kids or aging parents, etc. and can't find the time to shop or cook. (Being disorganized also keeps you poor.) The Asian people who cook skillfully and eat lots of vegetables tend to have naturally high energy levels and are more organized for cultural reasons; that's why few of them are poor, at least in this country.

naturally high energy levels and are more organized for cultural reasons

Was that your graduate thesis or something? The Naturally High Energy Level and Social Organization of the Chinaman

[Cue to heartwarming scene of Grampa in his favorite chair by the fire, telling all the little ones why he always put the chinamen in charge of the company store.]

Next thing you'll tell us is the Mexican's indolent nature (as evidenced by the tradition of siestas) is sharpened for the better by the cooler North American climate.

Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant?

Mexicans aren't lazy, they do all the hard work. It's us white folks who tend to be lazy.

My question to left-wing apologists, does supply of healthy food at local grocery stores create demand in a neighborhood, or does demand for healthy food create supply at local grocery store?

I loved the "in college I got $120 a month" comment.

All comes down to those people.

Happy Christmas.

It all comes down to those people who know from experience what they are talking about?

How long ago were you in college?

Did you go home for weekends? Term breaks? To roommates homes?

Grandma send you any care packages?


If consumer preferences are controlled by "culture, education and history" , go tell Burguer King they're burning 300+ million a year in marketing. Those idiots think current ad spending is an investment.

The data about "food at home" is not about eating out vs. eating in, in your source. it is about the total portion of food spent on food. The data does not support your arguement.

The "food deserts" story was garbage, but the quinoa-eatin/popeye's-eatin class divide isn't nearly so stark either, and getting less so. In NYC's poor neighborhoods the quality and variety of food available at standard grocery stores is steadily improving, and "green" specialty stores. Sure they're catering to a segment of the local population that is probably better educated than the local average, but if you want kale and quinoa in the Bronx you've got multiple nearby options. Even the cheapo ubiquitous white potato is quite healthy as you long don't greasy fry it.

And come to think of it, the other day on Madison Avenue in the 60s passing some prim and proper and pricey corner store who should I see in the window but Aunt Jemima.

What I like about the comments to this site is the implicit bias that some seem to have about low social economic status folks and obesity.

So, chew on this:

"Other researchers, in a study published in Demography, have also looked at how SES is related to obesity in the transition to early adulthood in the United States.5 They found a more nuanced relationship. For instance, men with a middle-class upbringing and lifestyle were almost as likely to be obese as those brought up in working-poor households but working now in lower-status jobs. For women, the relationships varied by race. For white females, all SES groups had a greater risk of obesity compared with the most advantaged. In contrast, among black women, only those from working-poor households who now had lower-status jobs were at increased obesity risk compared with the most advantaged group." http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2013/obesity-socioeconomic-status.aspx

So, all you white men raised in middle class households you share obesity with persons raised in low SES households and working in low SES jobs.

Get off your a** and drop your preconceptions.

Does it explain how the government created these food deserts?

Or why the poor, ignorant and violent keep multiplying?

Or why public schools don't teach nutrition?

Or why ketchup is a fruit.


Nutrition - nobody knows anything.

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You would be surprised at what kind of ordeal is grocery shopping in Venice.
Stair-climbing trolleys (the ones with three wheels on each side) are the most important invention of the 20th century, according to local elderly citizens.

While the NBER paper is impressive you probably should also link to the newly published article by Kevin Hall:

Key quote:
"Disentangling the relative contributions of these environmental variables is a difficult problem, but it seems clear that the food environment is likely the primary driver of the obesity epidemic."

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