Food Policy

Five Years and $500 Million Later, USDA Admits That 'Food Deserts' Don't Matter

You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can't make them buy organic kale.


Fuzzy Gerdes/Flickr

For several years, so-called "food deserts"—low-income neighborhoods devoid of nutritious food options—were an oft-cited culprit for America's high obesity levels. Everyone from state senators to Michelle Obama had ideas about how to fix the issue, from launching new farmer's markets in these neighborhoods to state grant programs designed to entice more fruit-and-veggie offerings to bans on new fast-food restaurants opening in these areas. The kicker was a multi-million dollar federal initiative, spearheaded by the First Lady, to promote farmer's markets and attract more grocery-store chains to food-desert neighborhoods. 

"Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "States and local governments have also launched programs to attract supermarkets or improve existing stores in underserved areas. For example, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative has provided $30 million of public funds (matched with $117 million of private investment) to help address limited store access in underserved urban and rural areas throughout Pennsylvania." 


The theory was simple: poor people simply lacked easy access to healthy food options. If you put fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in front of them, they would soon be singing the praises of Michael Pollan, too. And voila: no more obesity epidemic in these neighborhoods. 

But of course things didn't work out that way. As many business owners in these neighborhoods and other food-desert skeptics have pointed out, the problem wasn't that they simply hadn't thought to offer more wholesome items. The problem was that these items just didn't sell. You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can't make them buy organic kale there.

The USDA just admitted as much, with a new report on food deserts published in its magazine, Amber Waves. Highlights from the article note that proximity to supermarkets "has a limited impact on food choices" and "household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity."  

While limited early research "found a positive correlation between access to a supermarket (or other stores selling a wide variety of healthful food) and diet quality," these studies generally only measured food purchases for a short time period and often failed to "consider the fact that most households have access to a vehicle and are able to travel beyond the local food environment to shop for groceries." More recent and robust data "show that the effect of food store access on dietary quality may be limited." 

Using data from several national food studies, the USDA determined that both low- and higher-income households tend to shop at supermarkets. Overall, 90 percent of households in a 2012-2013 study shopped for groceries at "a supermarket or supercenter." The figure was nearly identical for households that participate in USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—what used to be known as food stamps—or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and for households deemed as "food-insecure." 

Both low and higher-income households also tend to travel to shop, often bypassing the nearest market when getting groceries. "This behavior was consistent across transportations modes; even those who walk, bike, or take public transit traveled, on average, farther than the distance to the nearest supermarket to do their primary food shopping," the USDA states. This suggests "that most U.S. households are not limited by the food stores in their own neighborhoods." 

In low-income neighborhoods defined as food deserts, "limited food store access showed a modest negative effect on the nutritional quality of consumers' diets," with consumers in these neighborhoods purchasing 4.3 percent less fruit, 2.4 percent less vegetables, and 10.4 percent less low-fat milk products than consumers not living in such areas." (Why the government persists in defining low-fat milk as the healthiest milk option is a mystery.) Customers in these areas also bought more diet drinks, more red meat, more poultry, and more fish. 

The USDA notes that another recent study found SNAP beneficiaries "were more sensitive to price than to food store access. Participants with very difficult access purchased smaller amounts of perishable foods than shoppers with easy access. However, the prices of different food groups were more important determinants of purchase decisions than was access. When price and demographic factors were accounted for, the effects of food access were negligible." When considering 13 food groups, "price increases led to statistically significant declines in purchases by SNAP households for all 13." But difficulty in accessing an item was associated with fewer purchases of only one food group (noncanned fruits and vegetables). 

Research looking at specific low-income neighborhoods and the effect of new grocers opening found no association between shopping at the new store and dietary improvements and found slightly decreased consumption of fruit and vegetables. A 2014 study of two neighborhoods in Philadelphia found the opening of a new supermarket improved "residents' perceptions of food accessibility in the neighborhood" but did not lead to increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

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  1. Ooh, I love food desserts!

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    3. Why do you equate healthy eating with being white and upper middle class?

      The thing is that it’s super easy to find cheap produce just about anywhere if you want to. Doesn’t matter if it’s kale and arugula or jicama and tomatillos.
      If anything, Mexicans buy more fresh produce than white people. they just mix it with too much cheese and fat.

      1. they just mix it with too much cheese and fat.

        You misspelled ‘starch’.

      2. Why do you equate healthy eating with being white and upper middle class?

        Remind me who’s pushing it? And don’t pull out Michelle Obama, everytime a white man talk about boxing he got to pull Michelle Obama out his ass. Well, ya know what, her momma named her Cassius, I’mma call her Cassius.

      3. Too much cheese? I’m unfamiliar with the concept.

  3. Didn’t spend enough.

  4. “Cigarette – Grocery – Pop – Candy – News paper”

    Ewwwwww. That’s disgusting! What kind of slob buys a newspaper???

    1. What the fuck is pop?

      1. That thing that comes after crackle, stupid. Duh doy.

      2. What the fuck is pop?

        It’s commonly referred to as “soda” by dipshits.

        1. You have a weird alternate definition for “dipshits”, too, huh?

      3. Working on my novel, I wrote this literally minutes ago.

        “Who wants something to drink?”

        “What kind of pop you got?”

        Of course, when I said that at the McDonald’s drive-thru in northern Virginia I was met with silence.

  5. You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale.

    Wanna bet? If the FDA doesn’t already have a SWAT team…

    1. And there’s also the Chief Justice of the United States to set you straight on your libertarian delusions.

      1. Of course, you could choose not to buy kale, but then the not-buying-kale tax would kick in.

        1. That’s crazy talk! The government can’t force you to purchase a thing or punish you for not purc-wait, what? Chief Justice Roberts is on the line? I’ll be right back.


    2. You can make them buy health insurance, so why not.

      Perhaps we should have a tax penalty for not buying brocolli.

  6. Huh, guess it makes sense this study would come out now. The food desert cause has been pushed to the wayside for about a year now. Time for the real science to come out.

  7. The food desert thing is perhaps the most out of touch of prog policies, though there’s a lot of competition. Oh, black people are fat? Well, why don’t they just shop at Whole Foods…

    1. They too can pay $34 for a bottle of olive oil! SNAP covers that, right?

      1. Well, SNAP would cover that bottle of olive oil if it weren’t for the evil Republicans who just want black kids to starve. It’s the Tea Party’s fault that black people don’t get proper nutrition.

        1. *it’s pretty obvious, but just in case*


  8. Highlights from the article note that proximity to supermarkets “has a limited impact on food choices” and “household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity.”

    Top Men at the USDA, I tell ya. Top. Men.

    1. The definition of horribly modeled “research” – they came up with a conclusion first, and then went in search of evidence to support it.

      This was quite evident to me when I looked at the map of “food deserts” in my hometown. One suburban borough was labeled as a desert, despite having a major supermarket and a dollar store that carries canned and frozen goods within two blocks outsides it’s boundaries. I think they were looking at walking distance, ignoring that poor people can ride a bus or bum a ride (my wife always takes her elderly mother grocery shopping).

      Another suburban township runs up the side of the mountain. 90% of the people are in a thin strip adjoining the central city. It has a major supermarket located within it’s bounds, and another three blocks outside. I reckon the “analysts” as the USDA assumed the population was geographically evenly distributed (away from the stores) instead of seeing where the people actually lived, and that the stores might have magically been built near the people that would shop there.

      1. My understanding is that the calculations were specifically designed to exclude certain stores that the Top Men did not like, such as Walmart.
        So many Food Deserts were home to perfectly legit grocery stores, such as Walmart.

  9. I have no idea of what I am going to fix for dinner tonight. You know what that means? My family is food insecure!

  10. They just need more education.

  11. Both low and higher-income households also tend to travel to shop, often bypassing the nearest market when getting groceries.

    But we can’t have school choice.

    1. Just wait for them to call for state control over groceries for universal food security.

      1. We have to force people to shop at the shitty local grocery store, because if they stop, it will just get worse for all the people who can’t afford to go to the better one.

        1. The Walmart Super Center will put all those high priced mom and pop corner stores out of business.

  12. You don’t need to be a math major to figure out that putting a store with a large footprint in a pricey area of town is not a way to make a profit, and putting a store in a high crime area is going to eat into your profits as well. Big boxes are out in the suburbs because land is cheaper there and the security costs are lower.

    1. And they are closer to the people who can afford to shop at big box stores.

    2. We have one Wal Mart, up in the hills of the eastern suburbs, about 7 or 8 miles away for those of us in the west hills. I’ve heard that they’ve considered a second store, but will not locate within the city limits because of the neighborhood crime.

      1. Dude. The close places are seven or eight miles from me. I wish I had a Walmart that close.

        And still not a “food desert. If you can’t get off your ass (to put your ass in your car) and drive seven miles into town to the Kroger it’s your own damn fault. (Everyone out here has a car. The only way you could provide everyone shopping within walking distance would be to have a store for about every 10 people).

  13. Clearly they need to spend another $500 million on a study to figure out why the program didn’t work. Then another $500 million to implement a fix.

    1. And another $500 million to study why that program failed … ad infinitum.

  14. I mean, if they’re going to try to intervene into fat people’s diets, why fuck around with these studies and programs and departments?

    Mail every poor person in the country a coupon book full of government-guaranteed free fruits and vegetables, then cut a check to any incorporated food seller that accepts them and mails them back. Kind of stupid and inefficient, but clearly less so than whatever the hell they’re doing now. My way, at least for $500 million you shoved 500 million pounds of carrots into people’s fat faces instead of just paying for some bureaucrat’s Tahoe.

    1. yeah but then the bureaucrats would have to drive Focuses (foci?), and we CAN’T have that. How can we identify our betters if they use the same transportation as (shudder) working class types.

      Besides, what would end up happening that that you’d spend the $50 billion for carrots AND pay for the original bureaucrat’s Tahoe AND pay for 50 more bureaucrats to oversee the new $50 billion.

      …oh, and the recipients would sell the carrots at 30 cents on the dollar and use the money to buy bologna and velveeta.

      1. Definitely “foci”!

    2. Customer yelling at cashier: “What the fuck do you mean, I can’t buy cigarettes with my food stamps?”

  15. Why the government persists in defining low-fat milk as the healthiest milk option is a mystery

    That is stupid even for them.

      1. “Lite” “beer”.

    1. Consumption of fat makes people fat.

      Consumption of cholesterol causes high levels of blood cholesterol.

      /Idiot reasoning/

    2. Yeah, if you’re going to consume liquids containing lactose, you may as well get a few fat calories to balance out the blood sugar rush.

  16. Maybe people in the SNAP program should only be able to buy FDA approved “healthy” products. That way big government can control what people eat and *POOF* no more obesity.

    1. Heh, joke’s on you. Make no mistake, food stamps have always been about giving mid-Western farmer types their turn at the Federal trough. And what that means is corn, soy, and wheat.

    2. I don’t get why food stamps don’t involve just giving people a hunk of cheese, a hunk of bread, some milk, and then assorted fruits and vegetables. If the program is about stopping people from starving it would seem easier to just give them food with high calorie counts directly, than giving them pseudo money that can be used however.

      1. never heard of government cheese?

  17. The problem was that these items just didn’t sell. You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale there.

    It’s not like the nutrition nazis haven’t pointed this out. This is why there’s a wing that claims that “bad food” just simply tastes too darned good, and like crack, should be banned- or at least some sort of regulatory regiment should be put in place to limit the availability of good-tasting naughty food.

    1. Or they say that good food is too expensive.

      I can purchase a good selection of meat and veggies at Wal Mart for a hell of a lot cheaper than it is to go to McDonald’s. It just takes a half an hour of time at home to prepare.

    2. Michael Bloomberg just felt a thrill run down his leg.

  18. Clearly the First Lady’s program is a success then! FOOD DESERTS ARE NO MORE!

  19. Listen up USDA retards, I’ll give you this one for free. I’m overweight because I like eating tasty food and don’t much care for exercising.

  20. When considering 13 food groups,

    Nobody needs 13 groups of food.

    1. We only had four when I was a kid,and we liked it!

  21. Mebbe the democrats should you know allow Walmart and such to come into the inner cities…as opposed to demanding that they unionize and pay 15 min wage.

    Democrats care about the poor people!

    1. I lived in a so-called food desert before, and Wal-Mart was the only place to get fresh produce.

      1. Walmart has been willing to build stores in Chicago’s “food deserts”. The Alderman have put up a heroic fight trying to stop them. Last I heard, Walmart was able to open a few stores in Chicago.

        1. Well of course. Having a Wal Mart store in the food desert would actually cause it to not be a food desert anymore.

          If there were no more food deserts, the aldermen wouldn’t have that extra billion dollars of federal money from which to siphon as much as they could for themselves.

          Heck, they may even have to work for a living.

  22. There’s a Whole Foods in a poor part of town here. Inside the place all you see are white customers. Outside, the neighborhood is 100% black.

    1. So, it’s a soul-food desert?

      1. I lol’ed

    2. But those white Whole Foods customers have the right progressive opinions, and that means the whole world to the poor black people.

      1. Since they have the right progressive opinions, I assume the customers there function as ATMs for the less-enlightened types who live in the neighborhood.

    3. I still get a jolt of pleasure when I go to WF and see all the Obama and Bernie bumper stickers on the cars.

    4. I used to live in one of the lower-income parts of town, which was about 90% Black. Food desert? Hardly. You couldn’t turn around without tripping over a fruit and vegetable store. Also, the local supermarket carried a wide range of hot sauces, as well as whole goats’ heads in the freezer. They’d never heard of horseradish, though, and the selection of seltzer was pretty thin. Meanwhile, a mile or so away in the largely Jewish neighborhood, the supermarket had an entire aisle full of seltzer, and they had all the horseradish you could want. No goats’ heads, though, and very little in the way of hot sauce.

      Apparently it takes the brilliant minds at the FDA decades and millions of dollars to figure out what any fule kno after five minutes of observation: people buy the things that they like, and vendors carry products that people will buy.

  23. “You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale.”

    Shhhh, you don’t want to give progs ideas. After all, they made people buy unaffordable health insurance plans.

  24. I wish the government only wasted $500 million every other failed initiative, we’d be richer as a country.

  25. Sounds like a plan to me dude.

  26. Whole grains are like SO FUCKING HEALTHY, right? Come on, poor people. Eat whole grains by the truckful. Them fuckers are good for ya!

  27. RE: Five Years and $500 Million Later, USDA Admits That ‘Food Deserts’ Don’t Matter
    You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale.

    You can lead people to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale.
    Not yet.
    Not until the People’s Revolution is complete.
    Then the masses will be forced, for their own good of course, to kale, rice cakes, bark, grass and assorted mouse droppings.
    But don’t worry.
    The FDA will ensure they are edible per Dear Leader’s instructions.
    One must have faith.

  28. Where I live now, food choices are abundant, and we even have free bus service, paid for with sponsor dollars, but of course we also have people driving SUV’s to Costco to buy frozen sausage biscuits by the case.

  29. You can[‘t make them buy kale, but you can tax them for not buying kale.

  30. Central committee re-do – All US Citizens are now mandated to eat more fruit-and-veggie offerings or else

  31. Funny, but it seems strange that no one else has noticed that fresh vegetables tend to be the cheapest groceries around. You can buy junk food in any shithole corner store, but you’re going to pay a ridiculous price for it.

  32. Evan . if you, thought Gladys `s story is impossible… on saturday I got a new Alfa Romeo since getting a check for $5834 recently and-in excess of, ten thousand this past-munth . it’s definitly the best work Ive ever done . I began this 4 months ago and almost immediately started bringing in at least $80.. p/h . you could look here …

  33. Evan . if you, thought Gladys `s story is impossible… on saturday I got a new Alfa Romeo since getting a check for $5834 recently and-in excess of, ten thousand this past-munth . it’s definitly the best work Ive ever done . I began this 4 months ago and almost immediately started bringing in at least $80.. p/h . you could look here …

  34. A little rural town near me was designated a food desert and thus someone got a grant for some worthless roadside vegetable stand, despite the fact that there was an IGA supermarket 5 minutes drive away and a Super Wal-Mart and Sav-A-Lot about 10 minutes drive away. Pretty much everyone in that community does their shopping at those three stores, plus a couple additional specialty stores. There were plenty of fresh food options (not to mention that it’s in farm country and this little grant-funded vegetable stand competed with actual farmers’ markets in the area.

    It’s all just a scam to enrich the parasites that run the programs.

    1. Not to mention that someone in the middle of the desertiest for desert has orders of magnitude more choices than about 99% of humans throughout history. It hasn’t even been 200 years that having enough to eat was the norm ( in america), so lets be gracious for just a minute and stop complaining about the world being imperfect. (That part directed into the void, not at sanjuro)

  35. Food desserts matter!!

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