There is a new study out which questions the relationship between food deserts and obesity as a basis for formulating public health policy. It finds a weak correlation between obesity and the distance traveled to the nearest grocery store. The authors of this study used a variable of 1 mile as a variable. They note that the lack of a strong relation might arise from the way our cities are laid out. Few people shop at neighborhood stores and in many areas (small towns, exurbs) the stores (think Walmart or Target) would be on the outskirts of the residential areas because they are usually huge and need plenty of space. Consumers would have to drive or take a bus there which might explain the lack of strong relationship between food sources and obesity. The study did find a much stronger relationship between health and the existence of fast food outlets.
This study caught my attention for two reasons: first, hearing so much about food deserts in the media, I had accepted the validity of the term without thinking much about it. But if we stop to think about we do need to ask: why the big emphasis on distance? Its not like people walk to their grocery store everyday to buy fresh supplies. Most people reserve it as a weekend chore with occasional week day dashes in case the milk runs out. Even if grocery stores are close by, what matters is the shopping list. If people are pressed for time, they will rely on processed foods rather than on fresh produce, a situation familiar to most of us . As a parent, a couple of evenings a week may be spent shuttling between different classes/ practice venues and dinner is eaten on the road so groceries and cooking are not even factors here.
The second thing that struck me was how little of the discussion on food actually focuses on the research. There is always a lot of discussion based on the reporting and interpretation of studies in the media, blogs but how many of us ever take the time to read the original work? It is important that we do so and be able to interpret it , otherwise we are merely relying on what someone else has understood from it. It would also bring an appreciation for facts and a distancing from judgments based on second hand information or emotions alone. So, here is the link to this study, and I first read about it here.