It ain’t necessarily so 3.

Poverty-induced hunger used to be a grave problem in America.  Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962) documented hunger among America’s large population of poor people, as well as many other ills.  One response appeared in the Food Stamp Act (1964).  Over the last fifty year, this program has greatly reduced hunger among poor Americans.  Today, less than 1 percent of households worry about having enough to eat or go without adequate food on a daily basis.  It is a remarkable success story about government’s ability to solve problems.

However, bureaucracies and advocacy groups foster mission-creep.  Backed by advocacy groups created at an earlier time, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has moved from reducing widespread real hunger to grappling with “food insecurity” and poor diet choices.

The USDA asserts that 14 percent of households are “food insecure” and another 5.6 percent had “very low food security.”  Not so fast, say critics.  It has been demonstrated for several decades now that average intakes of nutrients are similar for children living in poverty and children not living in poverty, and between black and white.[1]   The real problem is obesity, not “food insecurity.”  Currently, 38 percent of all Americans are obese, 42 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 48 percent of African-Americans are obese.[2]

Similarly, “food desert” became a term much in vogue five years ago.[3]  According to the USDA, in urban areas it is a place where at least 33 percent of the population lives at least a mile from a supermarket and at least 20 percent live below the poverty line.  In rural areas, the distance to qualify is ten miles.  This isn’t just a convenience issue in the eyes of the Obama Administration.  It is also a health issue.  Lack of access to fresh foods drives people to rely on processed foods and fast foods.  A steady diet of Big Macs and soda leads to obesity, with a host of medical complications.

Not so fast, say critics.  First of all, 93 percent of the people who live in these supposed “food deserts” have access to a car.  In addition, in cities there is public transportation.  Saying a grocery store is a mile or more away is meaningless.

Second, there are five fast-food outlets for every supermarket for a reason.  That reason is market demand.  Many people prefer fast foods and processed foods to fresh foods even when they have a choice.  Fast foods cost less than do fresh foods.  Fast foods are full of fat, salt, and sugar, so they taste better than do fresh foods.  Fast foods and a lot of the stuff sold in convenience stores don’t require any higher-order cooking skills than the ability to work a microwave.

Well, is there a way to stop people from doing what they want, when what they want is bad for them?  It’s difficult.  In 2010, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to have soda dropped from the “foods” eligible for purchase with food stamps.  Advocay groups and minority communities pushed back.  The USDA rejected Bloomberg’s idea.  Los Angeles gave it a try by using zoning laws to restrict the number of fast-food outlets in poorer parts of the city.  The question is whether the restrictions have just displaced fast-food consumers from their home “food desert” to some other area where no such restriction apply or if they have just led to longer lines at existing fast-food outlets.

Sometimes solving one problem can lead to other problems, even imaginary ones.

[1] Robert Paarlberg, “Obesity: The New Hunger,” WSJ, 11 May 2016.

[2] Paarlberg, “Obesity.”

[3] “America’s ‘food deserts’,” The Week, 19-26 August 2011, p. 11.

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