To hear some people tell it, the only reason many of us eat poorly is because we don't have easy access to fresh vegetables. It makes you wonder: Have these folks never heard the late-night siren call of the rocky road ice cream in the freezer drowning out the carrots in the fridge?
Poor eating habits are a serious concern, of course. But the latest effort to combat them - by identifying and eliminating so-called food deserts - relies heavily on wishful thinking and oversimplification.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a somewhat tortured definition of a food desert: an area where 20 percent or more of families are below the poverty line or earn 20 percent less than the median in surrounding areas and a third of them are a mile away from a grocery store in urban areas or 10 miles away in rural areas.
In plain English, food deserts are places where it is difficult for poor people to get to a supermarket.
That's a problem. Supermarkets are wonderful places, where the bounty of our economic system is on display, where you can shop for lunchmeat, light bulbs, detergent, dog food, medicine and mustard all in one place at reasonable prices. They are both a sign of and a driver of an area's economic health. The absence of a supermarket in Atlantic City, for example, is sorely felt.
But much of the current drive to combat food deserts comes from people who are convinced that easier access to fresh foods will be an effective remedy for high obesity rates among our poorer residents.
Unfortunately, while there are well-established links between levels of poverty and obesity, there's not much evidence that offering more choices actually changes eating habits. It's more complicated than that. The same big supermarkets with the best produce selection also have the best selection of potato chips and sodas, after all.
And while obesity and lack of choice are serious topics, it's hard to take any proposed solutions seriously when advocates see food deserts everywhere.
Ocean City a food desert? With a SuperFresh at one end of the island and an Acme at the other?
Yes, a Pathmark in Egg Harbor Township closed in 2012, but a Produce Junction opened just down the road.
Increasing choices for people, especially
for people with limited incomes and few transportation options, is a worthy goal. But by overstating their case and labeling too many areas as food deserts, well-meaning people are diluting what should be a targeted effort and may be drawing attention away from other programs that would do more to improve the health of lower-income residents.