Food Deserts: Millions Of Californians Starving Themselves Into Obesity

Skinny *and* fat!The blubber is flowing in California. So says that State’s venerable University, Los Angeles division. It’s an epidemic! Both excessive fatness “increased significantly in just six years”.

This isn’t the worse of it. Researchers were horrified to learn that those fattest in stomach are those thinnest in wallets. The poor suffer more than the rich. “Adults living below the poverty line had a significantly higher prevalence of obesity (27.7 percent) than higher-income adults (19.6 percent).”

The Center for Health Policy Research at UCLA emphasizes that, “Low-income teenagers are almost three times more likely to be obese than teens from more affluent households.”

“Our neighborhoods are literally making us fat,” said Susan H. Babey…”We need better strategies and more thoughtful urban planning if we are going to make our towns and cities livable, not just places where we live.”

The Public Policy Institute of California agrees with UCLA: people are fat—fatter now than ever before.

There is some good news, however. We don’t have to live fat because—new research suggests—“obesity itself is arguably reversible. (p. v)”

Women and minorities and the poor are hardest hit. “Blacks and Hispanics in California tend to have higher poverty rates and lower levels of educational attainment than whites. (p. viii)” Presumably, better educated white men know when to say when—in terms of super-sizing, that is.

All agree: certain neighborhoods house more fat people than others. Dr Robert Koss of UCLA says, “The disparity in teen obesity prevalence among low-income and more affluent communities should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.”

UCLA researchers “urge city planners to consider zoning ordinances to regulate the number of fast-food restaurants…” The Public Policy Institute produces pages and pages of regression analyses which prove the “idea that aspects of the neighborhood environment help explain obesity risk.”

One more bit of evidence, this from the California Endowment, Public Policy and Advocacy group. They turned their research-atorial gaze upon the Golden State and discovered what others had missed. Some kids were not fat but—and here I want you to follow me closely—that a significant proportion of “children ages 9-11 years old, are at risk of” becoming fat! The emphasis is mine.

Let’s summarize the story thus far. Californians are fatter than certain government bureaucrats would like them to be. Minorities, the poor, children as ever, and those that live in named neighborhoods are either fatter than their white, rich, adult, mansion-living counterparts; or they are not yet fatter but are at “greater risk.” Got it?

Enter the feds. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which heard the call of California and rushed to the State. The USDA ascertained quickly that the problem was food and people. Something not quite right about the combination: through some mysterious mechanism, the mixture produced obesity.

The USDA returned to Washington, puzzled over the problem, and, in time, produced research which concluded that there were too many Californians who lived in “food deserts.”

What is a “food desert”? The definition offered by reporter Joanna Lin is a place “where there is no nearby supermarket or large grocery store.”

Judith Bell, “president of PolicyLink, an economic and social equity research and advocacy group,” is hip to the USDA’s conclusion. “We know there are some places that are food deserts – that if you were actually walking through the blocks or walking through the community, you’d recognize it as a food desert.” What other proof is needed?

And just where are these food deserts? In certain neighborhoods. Which neighborhoods? You guessed it, the very same neighborhoods which are packed with pudgy poor people.

How about that? The poor, who by definition have less money to spend on food, are eating more food than the rich, even though the poor can’t find the food with the same ease as the rich, who live in food oases. The explanation for this awaits better minds than mine.

But don’t go just yet, because on top of this, research also reveals that despite California’s “remarkable agricultural abundance and our nation’s unprecedented prosperity, over 5 million Californians are hungry or live in fear of hunger.” So says the California Food Policy Advocates, and so, inter alia, echoes the California Hunger Action Coalition.

The CFPA doesn’t say who these unfortunate emaciates are, but simple logic forces us to conclude that they are rich white people, folks who are within arms’ reach of bountiful harvests. Money is a curse which produces starvation!

Thanks to long-time reader Bruce Foutch for supplying the inspiration for today’s story. Don’t forget to call mom, everybody. A belated birthday to David Hume, an obese philosopher who turned 300 yesterday. And congratulations to Tiger Justin Verlander, who threw his second no-hitter yesterday. There have only been 271 official no-hitters before this.


  1. “Our neighborhoods are literally making us fat,….”

    I think you misspelled that lady’s surname. Should not the last letter be an “l”?

    Logic, logic, logic, logic …… gotta remember to use logic occasionally.

  2. JH

    I wonder if David Hume had observed that writing exercises couldn’t help one lose weight.

  3. SteveBrooklineMA

    The definition of a “food desert” point, in an urban area, is a point a mile or more away from a supermarket. Just one mile. It’s absurd.

  4. Scott B

    @ 49erDweet: Of course the neighborhoods aren’t doing anything even figuratively…

    The amazing and insightful term “food desert” was invented by the British 1990’s, and I’m surprised it took us so long to embrace it as way to improve health. I’ve lived in food deserts most of my life especially using the definition of “Research suggests food deserts exist if consumer residence is one to ten miles away from the nearest supermarket.” When I manage to drag myself into the local and small market (i.e. a not a large chain, apparently the presence of WholeFoods means it is not a desert), and see the other po’ folks struggling to decide between purchasing the highly processed and refined food and all the year-around available fresh fruits and veggies (courtesy of long-distance transportation) the “unhealthy” choices win out. It must be the mental strain of the long distances covered.

  5. Ray

    “over 5 million Californians are hungry or live in fear of hunger.”

    That obviously explains it. I get hungry every day and I’ve been known to go to a fast food place when I am hungry. If I were suffering from hunger phobia (fear of hunger) I would probably go more often because of my mental state.

  6. @ Scott B. Where to begin……? Great link, btw.
    Maybe what she meant was “litter-ally”, by means of the roadside tossing out of fast food wrappers willy-nilly? ¿Nes Pah?
    The irony of a Brit coining the term “food desert” is simply precious. Nationally, their favourite sit down meals feature Indian cuisine and main fast food outlets are McDonalds. Today even their “take-away” meals are culturally mixed, with only their own Fish & Chips remaining in the top five.

    Why do so many brainiacs loose sight of reality when they struggle with creative juices? Is it cultural or genetic? Or only a localized virus infection?

  7. William Sears

    How easy it is to invert cause and effect, or more accurately, you notice a correlation and impute whatever causal direction that will put money in your pocket and advance your political career. You need marks, I mean customers, for your weight loss clinic. This was all solved over sixty years ago by Ancel Keys in ground breaking work done shortly after the Second World War. It was known as the Minnesota Starvation Study and has been confirmed by dietary research done since. Read the following article and weep for the state of modern science.

    Current opinion about the “obesity epidemic” is another wish replaces thought moment.

  8. Tom S

    We don’t see children joining neighborhood kids for all kinds of games and unstructured adventures anymore. Now the children are kept inside until adults can plan activities and accompany them outside. Many activities and sports cost a lot of money.

  9. @ Ray

    So does that mean the other 32,253,956 of us, more or less, are sated or not worried from where our next meal might be coming? And does the accuracy of a rounded number such as 5 million bother anyone else?

  10. Speed

    From the ConAgra Foods Foundation

    Nearly 1 in 4 Children is Affected by
    Hunger at Some Point During the Year

    The ConAgra Foods Foundation is leading the charge against child hunger
    by investing in national and local partnerships to make a difference in our

    I present the above only because it isn’t a taxpayer funded institution presenting taxpayer funded research in search of more taxpayer money. I know, ConAgra is a food company so they aren’t totally disinterested.

    I don’t know how many kids in America are hungry, affected by hunger or in fear of hunger but one is too many. Fixing it requires more than writing a check or dumping a load of dried beans at the curb or appointing a czar. It’s a hard problem and if the numbers are correct it’s becoming a bigger problem. Whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re spending isn’t working. We don’t need more of the same, we need something different.

    Ask the question, “Should we spend even one dollar on art while there are children going hungry in America?” I don’t think so. If “feeding the poor” was structured so that no money would be spent on any other program until hungry children were eliminated do you suppose a solution would emerge? Quickly. The reality is that ending childhood hunger is not a priority.

    And what could possibly be more “sustainable” than feeding our kids?

  11. Bob Koss

    I was astonished to see someone with the same given and sir name as myself was advocating yet more unnecessary government involvement in the personal lives of citizens. No Koss that I am aware of would ever advocate such tripe.

    I am relieved to discover it is a typo and his last name is actually Ross and not Koss.

  12. bob

    The subject of hunger is very interesting. I personally have never seen a child, or anyone, deprived of food because of availability of food in the United States. I don’t say this with the attitude that it does not happen, but I know of no situation where it does. Not only are there Federal programs to feed poor people, but almost every church with which I am familiar has mission to feed the hungry.

    Churches, schools, and other organizations often ask us contribute food and money to individual families, or to people because of certain events like hurricanes or tornadoes. I know of no systematic food availability problem.

    Mr Sears, could you articulate the conclusion of the study you link in you comment? I am lazy and it is a lengthy article.

  13. Speed

    Personal improvement usually requires actively doing something — pass the bar; take a pill; learn a foreign language; wear a suit; make a speech; change the oil; be nice to a spouse etc. Losing weight requires that we not do something — not eat.

  14. Ken

    To think, all this fuss’n over obesity started with President Eisenhower — a Republican — who wanted to institute a fitness program [or something] that President J.F. Kennedy — a Democrat — fashioned into a sort of workble government initiative:

    The core of the problem as it was observed then was first described as:

    “After World War II, many Americans worried that U.S. citizens, especially the young, were growing overweight and out of shape. The nation’s economy had changed dramatically, and with it the nature of work and recreation changed. Mechanization had taken many farmers out of the fields and much of the physical labor out of farm work. Fewer factory jobs demanded heavy labor. Television required watching rather than doing.”

    Who wudda thought that the real problem was that poor folk living in “food deserts” were eating more than their wealthier neighbors living “food oasis” and the solution was government intervention to protect & ensure….

    THAT Democtratic standard reflects a radical shift in perspective–and underlying values–from JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you” approach, which included a fitness program, etc. clearly built on a base of self-responsibility & self-accountability exercised by self-initiative & self-discipline.

    Ole JFK, these days, comes accross as one of those meanie Republicans!

  15. Adam H

    “The disparity in teen obesity prevalence among low-income and more affluent communities should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.”

    By policymakers, Dr. Robert Koss, do you mean the politicians who receive 100% (rounded up) of their campaign donations from rich people and businesses, and who only need to maintain the ILLUSION of compassion for the poor? I’m sure they are absolutely salivating at the thought of doing something stupid with rich people’s money to look “nice”.

    Drawing on my extensive policymaking experience playing “Simcity”, here’s how I deal with poor people: First, I segregate them by having one residential area with lots of nice parks and stuff, and another residential area over by the pollution and crime. Then, I raze the poor residential buildings to the ground! Cause no one likes having poor people in their city.

    At least in real life people PRETEND to care.

  16. gcb

    Hmm. The fact that many of the cheapest foods (and most readily available in some areas) are highly-refined, carbohydrate-rich “foods” couldn’t have anything to do with it, could it? Nah – must be because poor people can’t show restraint the way rich people can, or some other elitist bull-puckey like that.

  17. Doug M

    Adam H,

    Love the Sim City approach to poverty. The cruely efficient urban planner makes life hard on the poor and forces them to move out of town!

  18. Wayne

    Gotta disagree with you, and I think GCB is on the right track.

    Whether food deserts are real or not, it seems reasonable to me that: a) poorer people get cheaper food which in our current society tends to be carb-rich food, that b) less-educated people might make food decisions based on what tastes good and not on what is good for you — especially immigrants who are separated from their traditional food sources — and c) that unemployed people have less access to exercise and health care than rich folks. (I also imagine that depression and overeating also go hand-in-hand.)

    Doesn’t mean that the government has to do something, nor that food deserts (I thought you were saying “desserts” at first) are real. Just that it does seem reasonable that poorer people could eat more (calories) than rich people and also be fatter.

  19. William Sears

    Bob et al,

    You can lead a horse to water………

    It is a very short article.

  20. Nomen Nescio

    you might want to rephrase: “until hungry children were eliminated “, unless of course you too like Adam H’s Simcity approach.

  21. JH

    I am a bit puzzled as to how people can make certain generalizations about the eating habit or lifestyle or other characteristics of “all” poor people. After all, according to the report, 72.3% of adults living below the poverty are non-obese.

  22. bob

    William Sears: I still haven’t read the 2,984 article you linked. Since it is about bed time, and I may be in need of a good sleep inducer, I might give it another go.

    It doesn’t hurt to give away the point of a linked article, if only as a courtesy to help readers decide if the effort of reading the whole article is worth it.

  23. “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” -Benjamin Franklin

  24. Noblesse Oblige

    The answer: Gov. Brown should hire Mayor Bloomberg to lead the charge to ban all the bad stuff. Follow that up with California tours by the First Lady. That’ll fix ’em.

  25. William Rice

    If they conclude that lack of grocery store availability is the root cause of obesity among the poor, then surely they have data showing that poor people who live close to a grocery store have lower obesity rates than poor people in the so-called “food deserts”? Surely they would not make such a lazy conclusion without such basic data? Sadly I know the answer. How long until humanity figures out that correlation causation?

  26. Marty

    “Food desert” is a lot like “global warming” or “homelessness” or “inadequate access to college,” or a zillion other things. An ill-defined concept that sounds bad and can therefore be used as an excuse for one person to claim power over the resources of another, without actually demonstrating (a) there is agreement on a real problem, or (b) that their proposed actions would ameliorate it in a cost-effecvtive manner (if it is even agreed to exist).

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