Have food deserts turned into food swamps?

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Do food deserts really exist? That depends on how you define them. On Wednesday, The New York Times published a front-page story of two studies that questioned the existence of food deserts and their relationship to obesity. Other media outlets soon followed suit.

One study, by Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California, suggested that so-called food deserts in urban neighborhoods contain more food -- both healthy and unhealthy -- than other neighborhoods. The second study, by Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, found no association between the food that students reported eating, their weight, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes. According to The New York Times, Sturm suggested, "Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert."

Research is important, especially when it challenges our assumptions. So is careful media coverage of it. But, like the causes of obesity, research is complicated. My question here -- one that few in the media seem to be asking -- is: How did the researchers define access to healthy food?

Both studies can be true and still miss an essential point about how our food system perpetuates inequity because neither critically engages the term "access". Both cost and transportation affect a person's access to healthful foods. Even if many low-income residents live within "a couple of miles" of a grocery store, the food may not be affordable. And getting to that store may be much more difficult and time-consuming than getting to a nearby fast food restaurant or corner store. What if someone has to take 2 buses or work multiple jobs to support his or her family? Making a 2-mile trip is probably a lot harder for that person than for a wealthy suburban resident who owns a car and can drive twice that distance in a fraction of the time.

This was the case for Melanie M., a former resident of New Orleans who commented on The New York Times article, sharing her firsthand experience living in a food desert:

I lived a stones throw away from a housing project and about a mile from 2 different grocery stores. There were also 2 corner stores and a small grocery within 3 blocks of my house. These stores sold snacks, processed and preserved foods (canned foods, pasta), some frozen foods, milk, eggs and processed cheese, and some processed meats. You could probably pick up some inedible tomatoes, potatoes, onions and bell peppers as well. Everything was sold at outrageously jacked-up prices. These corner stores were a far cry from those in NYC, which offer up fresh vegetables, fruits, organic and specialty fare.

I didn't own a car. So a trip to a grocery store a mile away became a 2 hour ordeal. Not to mention when using public transportation you can only carry/struggle with 2-4 bags worth of groceries anyways. But I did it because I was (1) alone and (2) am well-educated and extremely health conscious. Most of my minority, N.O. public school neighbors were not. Without factoring in the costs of time and travel, the research is meaningless.

Whether we define it as a desert or a swamp, everyone needs easy access to healthy, affordable food. It's a matter of fairness. After all, if we want to have vibrant communities, we should commit to investing in all communities. To this end, the media can play a role by reporting more critically on the increased barriers to health that some communities face.

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