An “Urban Legend ” of Urban Planning Bites the Dust

The notion that inner city neighborhoods lack proper grocery stores (that sell wholesome produce), so the poor folks who live there have no choice but to survive on “fast food” which is nutritionally dreadful and causes obesity and can hinder weight loss, has by now become one of those in incontestable Great Truths. It ain’t so. It’s an “urban legend.” Check out Gina Kolata’s front-page story, Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity, N.Y. Times, April 18, 2012, at p. A1. It turns out that this particular Great Truth, isn’t any kind of truth in spite of the fact that the First Lady, Michelle Obama, contributed to it by deploring the supposed fact that in center city, “if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kids’ lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.” But it ain’t so. You can get basically any type of food in the cities.

Quoth RAND Corporation’s Roland Sturm, a lead author of one of the recent studies looking into this problem, that was puublished in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine : “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert.” So maybe the produce available in those places may not be of the best quality, and maybe you wouldn’t bypass Gelson’s and go there when setting out to shop for fresh arugula or dragon fruit, but there is plenty of good ol’ garden variety produce to be had there — you should pardon the pun — without taking taxis and multiple busses.

As the Times notes, even in an urban dump like Camden, New Jersey, the center city is served by three stores “with abundant produce.” So why don’t the local kids eat wholesome salads? Because, we are told by the Times, they buy “empanadas, sodas and  candy.” The Times even runs a photo (on p. A3) showing the produce department in a Camden grocery store, with veggies piled ceiling-high. So it’s a matter of preference, not availability.

So what’s the moral here? In nutrition, as in other areas of life, you have to exercise free will to provide benefits to yourself, and no amount of preaching is likely to be a substitute for the exercise of free will by the kids and their parents. For the record, we are not in favor of America becoming a nation of lardbutts but if there is to be a change in American eating habits it won’t come about by the high and the mighty fostering “urban legends” about “food deserts” and the like.

This particular “urban legend” like others has a healthy dollop of wishful thinking to it. If only those kids would eat fruits and salads instead of empanadas, . . . Yeah. And if only urban renewal worked. . . And if only those suburban dwellers would follow the preaching of enviro-planners, sell their cars, and move from their McMansions into environmentally desirable city apartments. . . . But they don’t. Why not? Because in a free country that’s an individual decision and if they don’t want to they don’t have to.

Follow up. For another dispatch on this subject see Jacob Sullum, The Mirage of Blooming “Food Deserts,” Reason.com, April 18, 2012.

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