Monday, January 29, 2018

Fixing Food Inequality Requires More Than New Grocery Stores

http://www.citylab.com; January 18, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh week on the blog.  Fresh week means fresh things to talk about.  #BloggerCandidateForum wanted to let everyone know that he is considering watching the State of The Union address, tomorrow evening, 6:00pm Pacific Standard Time.  The Forum might be interested to see if The President sticks to the script or goes off the rails.  One interesting news item today, it seems that The President is considering nationalizing the 5G network.  Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai must be gnashing his teeth, especially after all the commotion surrounding the repeal of #NetNeutrality rules.  Other than Kesha's stunning performance, Bruno Mars and Kendrick Lamar having a good night at The Grammys, kind of an average news day.  Shall we move on to today's subject: food deserts and inequality.

Here is a fact, way too many Americans are overweight and consume unhealthy food (except for Yours Truly, naturally), a problem that disproportionately affects poor and low-income people.  Richard Florida writes in his CityLab article, "It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality," "For many urbanists,the main culprit has long been 'food deserts'-disadvantaged neighborhood's that are underserved by quality grocery stores, and where people's nutrientional options are limited to cheaper, high-calorie, and less nutritious food."  However, the answer is more complex than simply persuading high quality grocery chains to open a branch in underserved communities.

A new study, conducted by economists at New York University, Standfod University, and the University of Chicago, The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States, by Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, and Jean-Pierre Dube (nber.org; December 2017; revised January 2018; date accessed Jan. 29, 2018), provides additional evidence to the argument that food deserts are not the sole reason for the poor nutritional habits.  "The biggest difference in income and, especially, in education and nutritional knowledge, which shape our eating habits and in turn impact our health."

To quantify the quality of food and nutritional according to income groups, and spread out over different geographies, the study incorporates data from the "Nielsen Homescan panel on purchases of groceries and packaged food and drink items between 2004 and 2015, which it then evaluates in of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthy Eating Index."  The co-authors studied the gap between high- and low-income households: i.e. those with annual incomes of $70,000 or more, and low-income households with annual income of $25,000 or less.

Richard Florida observes, "The study reinforces the notions that food deserts are disproportionately found in disadvantaged neighborhoods."  It found that over half (55 percent) of all the surveyed postal codes with an average income of $25,000 fell into this category-over twice than the share of postal codes throughout he nation overall (24 percent).

Even more disturbing is that the study illuminates the breadth of nutritional inequality in American.  Mr. Florida writes, "Across the board, high-income households benefit from better, more nutritious food.  They buy and consume more of the four very healthy food groups:.... They consume less of two of four unhealthy food groups, staturated fat and sugar (their consumption of sodium and cholesterol is basically the same as that of lower-income households)."

Higher-income households (Yours Truly included) tend to have considerably healthier grocery receipts-statistically speaking, "almost 0.3 standard deviations, healthier-" than lower-income households, "a gap which expanded substantially between 2004 and 2015."  In general, high-income households purchased "one additional fiber gram per 1,000 calories than low-income ones, which is associated with a 9.4 percent decrease in Type 2 diabetes."  High-income households allow buy "3.5 fewer grams of sugar, which correlates with a 10 percent decrease in death rates from heart disease."

With this in mind, Mr. Florida observes some striking similarities in the food consumption habits between high- and low-income households.  Both income groups shop at stores, regardless where they live.  The difference being "High-income households spend 91 percent of their grocery dollars at supermarkets.  Low-income households spend just slightly less, at 87 percent."  

Furhter, both income households, including those residing in food deserts, travel approximately the same distances to grocery shop.  The study co-authors generated a graph (you can see it and related graphs at citylab.com; Jan.18, 2018; date accessed Jan. 29, 2018) that maps out the distances Americans travel to buy groceries.  Mr. Florida reports, "The average American travels roughly 5.5 miles to buy their groceries.  Low-income households travel slightly less distance, an average of 4.8 miles.  Americans who live in food deserts across the board travel farther, an average of 7 miles..."  This includes households in rural areas.  Furthermore, residents of urban food deserts travel wee less than the overall average, "while low-income households that live in urban food deserts and do not own a car-the group that the food-desert argument is mainly about-travel just 2 miles on average."

This brings to mind the role neighborhoods in American nutritional habits, and "why do food deserts matter far less than the conventional wisdom says they?

To understand this, The Geography of Poverty and Nutrition: Food Deserts and Food Choices Across the United States follows two things.  First, it examined what happens when supermarkets open in underserved neighborhood's, including food deserts.  "It turns out that the entry of new supermarkets has little impact on the eating habits of low-income households."  Interestingly, even when a new supermarket opens in a low-income neighborhoods, the residents tend to buy the same low nutritional value products.

Essentially, a new supermarket simply diverts customers from established, farther away stores.  Hunt Allcott, Rebecca Diamond, and Jean-Pierre Dube state,

...supermarket entry does not significantly change choice sets, and thus doesn't affect healthy eating... (nber.org; December 2017; revised January 2018)

Thus, greater neighborhood access to better quality food stores accounts for a mere 5 percent of the difference in the nutritional choices made by both types of households.

Second, the study analyzed what happens when low-income individuals and families move from communities with lesser quality stores to ones with better quality options.  Again, the affect is negligible.  Moving to a neighborhood, where people have healthier eating habits has little or no impact in the short term, minimal affect in the medium term, and results in a 3 percent improvement in the Healthy Eating Index's tally of their grocery receipts.  

 The bottom line is, "the study finds little evidence to support the notion that food deserts are solely to blame for unhealthy eating.  It concludes that the evidence does not support the notion that eliminating food deserts would have material effect on nutritional inequality (Ibid). The next question would be, what does have material effect on nutritional inequality?

Instead of focusing on the differences of peoples' nutritional habits within an urban area, the co-authors focus on the regional differences in nutritional habits.  The co-authors created a map of the continental United States that illustrates the "Average Health Indx of Store Purchase by County (Ibid).  "The map plots the geography of healthy versus unhealthy eating across America's 3,500-plus counties.."  The dark red areas signify a "lower health index based on grocery purchases, while light yellow represents a higher health index."  Taking into account some variation within urban and metropolitan areas, the most glaring differences are across the regions.  "There is a large 'unhealthy eating belt' across the Midwest and South, surrounded by healthier eating belt along the East Coast, West Coast, and Pacific Northwest."

More to the point, "the fundamental difference in America's food and nutrition has more to do with class than location."  A staggering "90 percent of the difference in Americans' nutritional inequality is the product of socioeconomic class,..."  The issue is not that more affluent Americans have more money to spend at the grocery store.  Rather, the cost of healthier food is not as prohibitively high as some people think.  "While healthy food cost a little bit more than unhealthy food, most of that is driven by the cost of fresh produce."  The price difference between healthy and unhealthy food options is marginal.  Interestingly, "the price gap between healthy and unhealthy food is actually a little bit lower than average in many low-income neighborhoods, according to the study."

Another factor in the nutritional choices of higher-income Americans is they have the benefit of more eduction and better information about the benefits of healthy eating.  "Indeed, eduction accounts for roughly 20 percent of the association between income and health eating,..., with an additional 7 percent coming from differences in information about nutrition."

The co-authors suggest better education would benefit low-income Americans by equipping them with more information about the food they eat.  Yours Truly is not so enthusiastic about that suggestion.  Nutritional information is widely available and you can educate people about the joys of healthier eating but ultimately it come down to choice.  That head of broccoli versus that package of mini-doughnuts.

Richard Florida speculates, "There are deeper reasons, again tied to class, that enable affluent and educated households to put this nutritional information to use."  One reason is they have more time and resources to devote to their overall health and well-being.  Personally speaking, Yours Truly really does not spend that much time on her overall health and well-being but understands that Mr. Florida is speaking in general terms.  "Conversely, lower-income people may simply discount the health advantages of higher-quality food or see some of those foods, like kale or avocado toast....as smacking of urban elitism."  This would explain why The President's fondness for fast food and Diet Coke goes over well with his base.

Whatever the reason may be, the great American nutritional divide is a microcosm of the fundamental class divisions that mirrors the divisions we witness in fitness (Ibid; Jan. 2, 2018), obesity (Ibid; March 8, 2012), and overall health (Ibid; Jan. 5, 2012) and well-being (Ibid; Nov. 9, 2017).  The deeper divisions within our society is what is fueling the nutritional inequality.