Pulling into the local store for juice and cauliflower instead of a soda and a candy bar does not sound enticing. But it is an image that the politically correct want lawmakers to envision for their constituents that live in so-called “food deserts.” The idea is that the only reason some who live in such areas don’t consume fresh fruit and vegetables is because there is an absence of such items being sold locally.
Naturally the assumption is also that taxpayers should fund the supply of healthy food choices.
For years, the Left has been asserting that obesity and poor health in rural and poverty areas is due in large part to the lack of healthy food choices in these areas. But unlike what happened in the movie “Field of Dreams,” building a neighborhood grocery store doesn’t automatically mean they will come.
Furthermore, forcing the corner store to offer zucchini alongside Moon Pies does not automatically mean the customer will purchase the zucchini.
The Economic Research Service at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a report on May 2, 2106 that noted the large amount of taxpayer money that has been spent on improving local food choices that previously had been absent in some areas: “Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores. States and local governments have also launched programs to attract supermarkets or improve existing stores in underserved areas.”
This expenditure of half a billion dollars over a five-year period did little to confirm the notion that access will lead to healthier diets or even selection of healthy foods. The USDA research found that access or proximity was not a driving force behind where people decided to shop.
The report stated, “The researchers found that households — both low-income and higher income — consider store characteristics other than proximity in deciding where to shop.”
These results of the USDA study suggest that “improving access to healthful foods by itself will likely not have a major impact on consumer diets or generate major reductions in diet-related disease. Access alone is not enough. Product prices, income available to spend on food, consumer knowledge about nutrition, and food preferences are perhaps more important determinants of what foods consumers choose to purchase.”
Herein lies the truth that is ignored by the “socially conscious” when they pitch ideas to federal and state government that involve using tax dollars to build local supermarkets, or force corner stores to stock certain foods. For example, price is a huge factor. If a corner store is forced to sell Brussels sprouts alongside candy bars, it is very likely that the price will be greater than that of Brussels sprouts in a supermarket.
This should cause the state lawmakers to question bills such as HB 387, “Corner Store Initiative,” sponsored by Rep. Yvonne Holley (D-Wake), or a Senate bill filed by Sen. Don Davis (D-Greene) “Healthy Food Small Retailer Program.” Using hard-earned taxpayer money to give incentives to corner stores to stock products that, for a variety of reasons, are not likely to be purchased, is not good use of that money. Sound legislation should go beyond what looks like a good idea and be based instead on sound research.
The market will ultimately dictate the inventory of the large supermarket as well as the corner store. If the owner of the corner store is selling more gumballs than rutabagas, he is going to supply more gumballs to meet the demand. It is likely that the owners of stores the Left is criticizing know the buying habits of their clientele, and know that the demand for collards may not be as great as the demand for gumballs.
Conservatives argue that liberty would dictate that the corner store owner be free to meet the demand of his customers and make a profit. Liberals would have the corner store owner be told what he must sell, preferably at what price he must sell it at, and even better, be told what he cannot sell. Liberals also would have the taxpayers bankroll the selling of low-demand items.
A July 7, 2011 article in the Economist made this interesting point: “No surprise, then, that neither USDA nor the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has been able to establish a causal link between food deserts and dietary health. In fact, both agree that merely improving access to healthy food does not change consumer behavior.”
The article also stated, “Open a full-service supermarket in a food desert and shoppers tend to buy the same artery-clogging junk food as before — they just pay less for it. The unpalatable truth seems to be that some Americans simply do not care to eat a balanced diet, while others, increasingly, cannot afford to. Over the last four years, the price of the healthiest foods has increased at around twice the rate of energy-dense junk food. That is the whole problem, in an organic nutshell.”
On May 23, 2017, WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston, published a commentary on its website by Rich Barlow regarding “food deserts.” Barlow wrote, “Research suggests that malnutrition and resulting conditions like obesity owe more to poverty and poor education than to whether there’s a Whole Foods or Market Basket down the street. So, better anti-poverty programs and improved schooling need to be state and federal priorities.”
The Atlantic’s Joe Cortright wrote on November 9, 2015, “The researchers also find that the opening of new, healthier supermarkets in neighborhoods has very little effect on what nearby residents eat. This new study reinforces earlier research that questioned whether the physical proximity to healthier eating choices is the root cause of poor nutrition and hunger.”
Before North Carolina lawmakers get pulled into spending tax dollars on trying to tell businesses where to locate or what to sell, they should determine if such legislation will be effective. Boutique legislation may look good, but if it is nothing more than a combination of wasting tax dollars and imposing government on store owners, it needs to be scrapped.