More Research on Food Deserts
I’ve written here before, skeptically, of the plans to address the so-called food desert on Kansas City’s East Side. Specifically, the plan to spend millions of dollars to subsidize a SunFresh grocery store is unwarranted and a waste of taxpayer funds. I’ve documented research that shows that nutritional inequality is not a function of distance from a grocery store. New research is bearing this out.
A study released this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines food inequality with an eye toward quantifying the impact of grocery store location. The paper concludes:
We find that equalizing supply would close the gap in healthy eating between low- and high-income households by less than ten percent. After separating out supply variation, the descriptive correlations in our final section show that education and nutrition knowledge predict healthy grocery demand and explain non-negligible shares of the relationship between income and healthy grocery demand. For a policymaker who wants to help low-income families to eat more healthfully, the analyses in this paper suggest that improving health education—if possible through effective interventions—might be more effective than efforts to improve local supply.
There are several nonprofit organizations in Kansas City working to address the issues of nutrition in the urban core, including Rollin’ Grocer and Kanbe’s Markets. If there is a market for healthy food, these efficient, private efforts are much more likely to succeed than a single, multi-million-dollar box store.
City leaders may get to point to a new, revived grocery store and shopping center as a result of their political largesse. But a subsidized grocery store won’t create much new interest in eating healthy—it is more likely to merely draw traffic away from other businesses that contribute to the local tax base. It will also consume public funds that would otherwise go to support infrastructure and, ironically, education. If food deserts are real, they are psychological, not geographical. A taxpayer-funded Sun Fresh won’t do much but get in the way.