Hey all – Cathy asked me to contribute some blogging on food deserts here, since we were on a panel about this topic a few months ago, and I’ve been writing about some food economics and politics issues over on my blog. I thought I would start off with a basic overview of what we think we know about food deserts, followed by some posts on what could be done to bring about a true abundance of great food in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem has been classified as a food desert by the USDA, but it is an open question as to whether food deserts actually exist.
For those who may be unacquainted with the term, a food desert is a geographic area, typically low-income, that is believed to lack access to healthy food at an affordable price.
The belief in the lack of access to nutritious food has resulted in a range of efforts by non-profits and governments to increase its availability, under the assumption that greater access will lead to healthier choices.
But it turns out to be very tricky to measure the availability of nutritious food within a city, and it’s not clear that greater access actually does lead people to choose healthier meals.
Some of the studies on food deserts [PDF] rely too much on the locations of supermarkets to measure where fresh food is available, ignoring smaller neighborhood grocers, prepared foods, farmers’ markets and other food sellers.
Other studies have focused on how close people live to grocery stores, but fail to take into account whether people may be grocery shopping near work, their childrens’ schools, etc.
Others have used data on food purchases within a city, but that doesn’t tell us whether nutritious food is unavailable, or whether people simply prefer to eat fast food and other less healthy choices.
If people genuinely prefer fast food, this raises some tough political questions. There are good arguments for respecting the choices of the poor and good arguments for paternalism, and people who care about these issues can disagree in good faith about the appropriate policy response.
Looking at the food situation in Bethlehem, I don’t really see a food desert, but I also don’t see an abundance of quality food sellers.
I see a real unmet market demand for a well-stocked high quality grocery store, such as the Bethlehem Food Co-op would like to open. I also see neighborhoods where food sellers are limited, where it might be unduly inconvenient for residents to travel to a grocery store or access low-cost prepared food.
In my next post, I will look at some of the opportunities I see for bringing about an abundance of tasty nutritious food in Bethlehem, along with some of the obstacles standing in the way of these opportunities.