Among the wacky ideas held by many urban planners is the notion that “food deserts”–that is, areas of cities without supermarkets–contribute to obesity. According to this theory, people who lack access to supermarkets eat many unhealthy meals at fast food restaurants. This reasoning is used to justify subsidies to supermarkets–often financed through TIF–in those areas.
However, the Los Angeles Times reports that a new study from the University of North Carolina Nutrition Transition program finds that merely putting a supermarket in the middle of a food desert won’t change people’s eating habits.
The Antiplanner checked the home page for Barry Popkin, the author of the UNC study. He’s found that the entire world is getting fat, not just those “auto-dependent” Americans. The average body-mass index (BMI for an American six-year-old is 22.2; the average for a six-year-old in China–which has one-sixth as many cars per capita as the United States–is 24.8. So much for the idea that rebuilding America to look more like Europe or Asia will cure us of our obesity.
In particular, Popkin’s research compares physical activity with the built environment and finds–whaddyaknow–that self-selection has a lot to do the the relationship between the two. In other words, people who live in walkable neighborhoods are more active because they choose to be, not because they live in walkable neighborhoods. So spending millions in subsidies and passing coercive rules mandating pedestrian-friendly design is not going to get people to stop driving and start cycling to work.
It would be nice to think that urban planners and elected officials who are eager to hand out subsidies and pass increasingly restrictive laws could learn from results like these. But they seem to easily ignore anything that doesn’t confirm their preconceived notions or the justification for subsidies to the interest groups who contribute to their political campaigns.