Those of us who have worked in food policy point to “food deserts” (places where healthy, affordable food is hard to find) as a problem for people on limited incomes who want to buy food that will keep them healthy. It just makes sense that if the only easily available food comes from the fat-salt-sugar-laden foods in a convenience store, added pounds and poorer health are likely to follow.
A new study confirms that being able to buy healthier food is only one part of a larger issue. According to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, improving access to fruits and vegetables does not necessarily result in better diets. The authors followed 5,115 black men and women for 15 years. All were between 18 and 30 at the start of the study. Participants logged the details of their diets, including how often they ate in fast-food outlets. The researchers also detailed what kind of food outlets were within easy walking or driving distance.
Some of the headlines reporting the study cast doubt on the importance of making healthier food more available. However, what the researchers make clear is that more options are needed, in addition to better food access. Just providing more outlets for produce will not change our response to a food system that has spent decades persuading us to eat highly processed food (or as Food First calls it, MESS: manufactured edible substitute substance).
MESSes may not have much nutritional value. They may be loaded with chemicals. They may make us feel bloated, slow and tired. However, we eat them anyways because they are convenient and taste good and because they have been so effectively marketed they are part of our social fabric.
The authors point out that fast food restaurants account for a lot of people’s food choices. They conclude: “Our findings provide some evidence for zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants within 3 km of low-income residents.”
Reducing food deserts is a start; so is making sure people can afford healthy food. Reducing corn subsidies is also an option. That beautiful, edible ear is stripped of its nutritional value and turned into MESSes that are found in nearly all processed foods. Taxpayers foot the bill both for the subsidies and for the health impacts that result from our unhealthy diets.
Add to that overuse of antibiotics in factory-farmed meat, a food system reliant on soil-damaging machinery, food portions that have multiplied beyond reason, highly effective marketing, an overload of chemicals and an epidemic of obesity, and we have a boatload of problems requiring many different solutions.
The easy answer is “Eat a healthy diet, and get plenty of exercise.” If only it were that simple.
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