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New York’s “Food Desert” Myth

eye on the news

New York’s “Food Desert” Myth

The city council wants to preserve upstate farmland to counter an imaginary shortage. May 2, 2016
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

To encourage a “sustainable, resilient food system,” New York’s city council has proposed a $5 million municipal farm-subsidy program, under which the city would buy development easements in the Hudson Valley. In this way, the council plans to help feed “3 million New Yorkers liv[ing] in neighborhoods without adequate supermarkets.” It’s alarming to consider that New York could suffer food shortages so acute that the city government must establish its own agricultural supply chain. Indeed, according to the council, 1.4 million New Yorkers are “food insecure,” indicating a massive failure of markets to respond to this most basic need.

But is it true? If it’s hard to reconcile the idea that New York City has, simultaneously, starvation-level conditions and an “epidemic” of obesity in the same neighborhoods and among the same people, it is because the contemporary debate about food availability tends to ignore individual choice (and taste). Paternalism and finger-wagging masquerading as science distort the argument about how and what poor people eat. For example, the idea of “food deserts,” which is what the council means when it refers to neighborhoods without adequate supermarkets, has become a truism among liberals concerned about urban dietary habits. First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, has made their elimination one of her top priorities. And indeed, some areas around the country, especially in rural regions, lack good grocery stores.

Few of these are in New York City, however. According to the Department of Agriculture, which originated the term, two small areas on Staten Island qualify as food deserts—meaning that at least one-third of the local residents live one mile or more from a grocery store that sells fresh food. The rest of the city, the department concludes, is reasonably well served.

The city has developed its own measures of food deserts, releasing maps that display vast swaths of New York supposedly devoid of supermarkets. Cross-referencing these food desert charts with Google Maps, however, reveals grocery stores scattered throughout every neighborhood in the city. These are not simply small delis or bodegas labeling themselves “groceries,” but legitimate supermarkets, such as Key Food, Associated, or C-Town that have meat, dairy, and produce sections.

New York has also licensed hundreds of fruit and vegetable carts under its Green Carts program, which grants cheap franchises in poor neighborhoods. To encourage food-assistance recipients to buy fresh produce, the city even provides free wireless EBT machines to Green Carts vendors. The idea that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of New Yorkers are miles away from an apple or banana is simply untrue. Even the New York Times has acknowledged that many poor neighborhoods have higher concentrations of groceries and full-service restaurants than wealthier areas.

“Food desert” alarmists often assume that high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, colorectal cancer, and other maladies among poor African-American and Latino New Yorkers stem from lack of access to fresh, healthy food. These communities, the thinking goes, have no choice but to eat deep-fried fast food or heavily processed, store-bought junk food larded with sugar and cheap fats. If only the kale, quinoa, and whole-grain breads sold in upscale supermarkets were available everywhere, then poor black and Latino people could eat healthy food.

Yet, studies demonstrate that people tend to choose the foods they eat in spite of broader availability. “Systematic socioeconomic disparities in household purchases persist after controlling for access,” writes economist Jessie Handbury of the Wharton School. “Even in the same store, more educated households purchase more healthful foods.” Latino consumers in Washington Heights buy starchy root vegetables such as yautia, batata, name, and mapuey, not because nothing else is available but because local markets respond to their demand for these exotic tubers.

New York City health commissioner Mary Bassett dismisses these findings. We shouldn’t look at diet through the lens of personal or cultural choice, she warns. Bassett equates the idea of bad habits or individual responsibility with 1920s Ku Klux Klan-style racism: “We went from [a belief in] genetic inferiority to saying black people make bad choices.” As Bassett sees it, “nobody says, ‘I really prefer a neighborhood where there is only fast food available’ . . . These are not personal choices. These are a lack of choice.” But if New York City’s neighborhoods—except for the two Staten Island parcels—do in fact offer choice, then blaming bad health outcomes on structural racism doesn’t add up.

City council advocates for the farm-subsidy program argue that the city should view the Hudson Valley as a “foodshed” and begin buying up development rights to ensure a stable food supply for the future. The effort is needless: New York’s food- supply chain is market-driven and thoroughly robust. Millions of tons of food enter New York City, supplied by farmers and distributors to wholesalers and retailers, with no need for government as a market-maker. And which farms would the city propose to protect first? Will New York participate in a grand scale, Community Supported Agriculture program, with “shares” of the week’s harvest going to each borough? Will the city send out commissars to harry the local kulaks suspected of holding back food for sale on the private market?

Perhaps when New York has fully mastered some primary responsibilities—education, transit, public order—its bureaucrats can graduate to managing the food supply. Until then, they should just advise their constituents to avoid starch in the evening.

Photo by wdstock/iStock

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