Questioning the Food Deserts/Obesity Link

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gina Kolata, medical reporter for The New York Times, and Mark Winston-Griffith, adjunct faculty at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, discuss new challenges to the conventional wisdom about the connection between food deserts and obesity.

Comments [40]

Lia from Brooklyn ~

Fantastic point!!

Apr. 19 2012 11:45 AM

It's really an issue of supply and demand. If no one is selling good produce it's because no one is buying good produce.

Fresh produce is difficult to profit from; the fade rate is extremely high and the margin is impossibly thin. A retailer needs to do huge (fast) volume in order to realize a profit. Without the volume it's a money-losing operation.

Also, industrial foods are artificially/superficially cheap because they are heavily subsidized by our charming "Government®". Cheap industrial food "products" seem cheap on the surface but if you factor in the inevitable costs to society in illness, health care and lost productivity and disability, there is no subsidy big enough to compensate.

Don't eat the Korporate Krap®, DON'T GET CHUMPED!!

Korporate™ greed and government collusion is sending you to a VERY early GRAVE!

THINK! It's better for you!!

Apr. 19 2012 11:41 AM
kathy condon

Whoah! Did Gina Kolata actually just say that she might be considered to live in a food desert because she has to drive 15 minutes to a grocery store where she lives in Princeton, NJ? And was she actually complaining that she finds that the fruits and vegetables there are more expensive than in New York City? How out of touch with the reality of urban poverty must she be, that she would say something like that on the radio?

Apr. 19 2012 11:40 AM

If you're addicted to an empty carbohydrate diet, it doesn't matter if you live in a food desert or next to a Whole PayCheck™, you will choose the crap every time. Whole PayCheck™ has stores full of "organic" crap that is a testament to this observation. Unless you choose to be self-aware, educate yourself nutritionally and make healthy food choices, you will continue to gravitate to foods your body has been addicted to. If you've grown up with Koke-A-Kola® in your baby bottle instead of breast milk, you're on the fast track to obesity. You can only break this desperate cycle with a combination of food availability AND education. It is not a single-facet issue.

On the other hand, the old adage; you can lead a horse to water... comes to mind.

The thing that bothers me is that we all eventually end-up paying for these poor nutrition choices in the form of impossibly high healthcare costs.

If someone goes to the trouble of eating well and staying fit should they really be required to take care of those that don't give a crap?

Apr. 19 2012 11:26 AM
John A.

My poor-man's diet was a giant bag of Basmati rice and smaller bags of split Indian lentils. About $.55 per meal, condiments extra. Up to $1.25 total. Much cheaper than MacDonalds and good nutrition.

Apr. 19 2012 11:13 AM
irinag85 from NYC

I wish people who eat bad food stop making excuses and just TRY TO eat better. I choose not very good vegetables and fruits over any kind of fast unhealthy fat food. It does not cost much to buy a package of pasta, or couscous, add some tomatoes, onions, or whatever vegetables and to make a dinner for the whole family.
It’s actually much cheaper than eating out at the fast food chains. But nobody can force people to use their brains if they don’t want to, even though it’s very simple.

Apr. 19 2012 11:01 AM

@Michael from Clinton Hill:

Before gentrification, the Associated Supermarket on Myrtle and Hall St had the absolute worst produce. Since the neighborhood become more affluent, that supermarket has vastly improved on quality of their goods.

Apr. 19 2012 10:54 AM

It depends on affordability. Recent cutbacks in food stamps don't help the poor afford fruit & vegetables.

Apr. 19 2012 10:54 AM

The article author sounds very privileged and ignorant when she states she lives in a food dessert in a more privileged neighborhood (where people are thin) because she has to drive to the store. I can't even justify explaining right now why that sounds ignorant. Reminds me of Theresa Heinz stating that she is African American. Missing the boat entirely.

Apr. 19 2012 10:53 AM

@Michael from Manhattan:

You bring up an excellent point - how far are people willing to go for healthy food? I think it depends on if you have the resources to travel and if you find produce affordable enough to justify spending extra to travel.

Apr. 19 2012 10:50 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

Lia, yes...

Apr. 19 2012 10:47 AM
Michael In Brklyn from Clinton Hill

Lost in this conversation is cooking habits. Just because you provide fresh vegetables and healthy foods doesn't mean it will be cooked healthily. People are obese because, even with healthy ingredients, they cook unhealthily. Unfortunately, in the areas where these food deserts supposedly exists, the culinary repertoire is limited and tend to lean toward fat and starchy foods. Additionally, plate sizes are way to large.

BTW, I live in Clinton Hill and definitely before gentrification food options in the supermarkets was horrible. So .....

Apr. 19 2012 10:47 AM
Ann G. from Briarciff manor, NY

This study implies that food access is no problem, BUT
1. Quality is key - I have a Pathmark near me and I cannot buy/use their produce - the quality dos not compare to local farmer markets, and a local Korean market. Also I went to an event in a poor neighborhood in Westchester County where they served a lovely looking plate of cut vegetables - the broccoli and other cut vegetables were inedible - they tasted like chlorine.
2. When fast food is "in your face" - by the number of grocery/convenience stores and fast food restaurants, it is not that meaningful to say there is fresh produce available at some stores - often further away from most residences.
3. Mark is absolutely right -the food-obesity link is complex... it's very important these studies not be used to obscure all the problems that need to be solved to get people to eat healthier and "shed obesity."

Apr. 19 2012 10:46 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

People care more about what they put in gas tanks than what they put in their bodies. You can give people an extra $300 a week just to buy healthy food and most will still buy soda and chips.

Apr. 19 2012 10:45 AM
JR from Brooklyn

There’s a cultural aspect too. I volunteered in a food pantry in Bed Stuy where the mission was to provide healthful food and fresh produce. When a worker was offered a free “healthy” Fresh Direct meal for their lunch, the response was “No way, that’s white people food, I’m going to McDonalds.” And the way that produce is prepared by certain cultures makes them unhealthful. The produce was available in the community where I volunteered, but the way its prepared will kill you – cabbage cooked beyond recognition and drowned in vegetable oil and salt was one item that a co-volunteer brought in for a Thanksgiving celebration that will always stick out in my memory. Every vegetable at that meal was unhealthy - and the pantry offered healthy cooking classes! There’s nothing “white” about preparing your food in a healthy way, that's a mindset that has to change.

Apr. 19 2012 10:45 AM
The Truth from Becky

I left some holes..ok there is a grocery store in the neighborhood but even so, they have a car to get to the produce, they shop weekly and shop well, they cook at home only, and don't eat out. So availability nor affordablitly apply to this group as the sole reason for not participating. They PREFER to eat for taste rather than health.

Apr. 19 2012 10:44 AM
Tam from Brooklyn

I live in Brooklyn in Canarsie and there are enough fruit and vegetables all around. It is cheaper and easier to eat fattening food. I feel that fruits and vegetables are not unattainable by any means; it is just people are not focused on healthy eating.

Apr. 19 2012 10:43 AM
Lia from Brooklyn

I think the conversation needs to shift to the emotional pain that poverty can create. Food addiction and binge eating are serious issues and often responses to difficult life situations. Food addiction is rarely fed with produce, even if it is available.

Apr. 19 2012 10:42 AM

I just thought it interesting to note - I live in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, in Flatbush, off Rogers Ave. I have better grocery options there than I did while living in the UES on 93rd... nicer stores (also more of them), better produce, etc. Restaurants seem about the same.

Apr. 19 2012 10:41 AM

Perhaps if the dreaded Walmart were allowed into New York, cheap produce would be available to all.

Apr. 19 2012 10:41 AM
Geoff from Yonkers

EVERY New York neighborhood has a Chinese restaurant that will gladly prepare a healthy, low-fat meal that includes vegetables for a very reasonable price. They will also now provide fried chicken and french fries, because this is what people want!

Apr. 19 2012 10:41 AM
john from long island

You can lead a horse to water(produce), but you cant make it not eat at McDonalds. its a social issue, . what are parents allowing kids to eat, and what are adults eating? everyone under 40 has groun up with Fast (and cheap) food

Apr. 19 2012 10:41 AM
The Truth from Becky

I believe that the issue is not affordability or availability - It is culture and individuality because you can lead a horse to water but.....u get the picture. I know people who have vehicles and have been advised by doctors/nutritionist to eat better, but won't. They have the right to kill themselves on sugar and salt.

Apr. 19 2012 10:40 AM
Amy from Manhattan

If Ms. Kolata's choice of neighborhood was random, then what she found there is just an anecdotal example & may not be representative.

Apr. 19 2012 10:40 AM

I'm with Mr. Winston. It depends on the quality of produce in the area. You can find produce in poor neighborhoods, but there are not many selections of fruits/vegetables and the quality of the produce available was bad.

Apr. 19 2012 10:40 AM
Petrushka from New York

Pathmark's produce may look abundant, but Mark hit the nail on the head - it's all about the quality of food. Additionally, it's about access to education about eating a balanced meal, having access to whole foods, and knowing how to cook these foods in healthy and delicious way. This why there have been more and more food demonstrations led by organizations like Weeksville Heritage Center, which is located in a "food desert," and Family Cooks.

Apr. 19 2012 10:39 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

Per MC's comment below, the issue may be availability and affordability and information and...It's complex, like these issues tend to be.

Apr. 19 2012 10:39 AM
Josh from Brooklyn

I disagree with the speaker from central Brooklyn about the differences between Nostrand and 5th Avenue in park slope. The green grocers, butchers, quality take-out, bakeries, etc. are much more widely spread on Nostrand in Crown heights than on 5th avenue in park slope. Now if you continue on 5th ave to Sunset Park the options become much better than in park slope. And I think this goes for all ethnic neighborhoods, in New York at least.

Apr. 19 2012 10:39 AM
Kabir de Leeuw

Just because you have great books in a Library in a neighborhood, doesn't make the material accessible. Just because you put a person next to a work of conceptual art doesn't make the art accessible. Just because you put an apple next to a child doesn't make the apple is accessible.

Apr. 19 2012 10:37 AM
Nick from UWS

As usual, these over-intellectualized studies are barking entirely up the wrong tree. As his 11211 suggests above, the reason obesity is on the rise is because crappy food tastes better, especially to children, is cheaper and is much less trouble to obtain and prepare for dead tired parents than "good" food. Follow the money! Follow the pleasure principle! Stop jerking around with 'concepts' and nonsense.

Apr. 19 2012 10:36 AM
mary chatham from soho

Is a mile a reasonable definition of a neighborhood in a dense urban environment? It seems a stretch to use a mile as a reasonable area that a person would use to shop in on foot.

Apr. 19 2012 10:36 AM
Cori from nj

One early contributor is that in some communities babies under 3 months are regularly bottle fed sugar water.

Apr. 19 2012 10:35 AM
Michael from Manhattan

This part of the Times article confused me:


But nobody in a large city travels two miles to buy food. Can you imagine someone at 125th Street traveling to a supermarket at 85th Street?

Apr. 19 2012 10:34 AM
Therese Mageau from Brooklyn

Did the study look at the *quality* of the produce? And the price? My experience living near grocery stores in poor urban areas when I was younger is that the produce was horrific! And it was far more expensive than going to the local McDonalds for a meal.

Apr. 19 2012 10:34 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

If the issue isn't availability, then maybe it's affordability? In addition to the chaos of poverty...

Apr. 19 2012 10:33 AM
RJ from prospect hts

When they talk about "available," do the studies include the *cost* of the food? Because no matter how many "green carts" may be put in a neighborhood, they *still* may not be *affordable.*!!

Apr. 19 2012 10:33 AM
MC from Manhattan

Wrong.... I worked in the Astoria Houses in Western Queens during the 2010 census. IT is a food desert NO fresh produce in the stores (no super markets either ) in that whole area people have to trek more than a mile away to get to a store with fresh fruits and vegetables. These studies do not apply in Harlem and Western Queens.

Apr. 19 2012 10:33 AM

fast food/junk food is cheaper than real food

Apr. 19 2012 10:21 AM
glork from Glen Ridge, NJ

I, too, am eagerly anticipating this report segment. I also wonder when the designers of school curriculums will include "nutrition" as a subject of merit for our children. Many adults display woefully inadequate knowledge of basic nutritional/ health elements and while education is not the answer to every malady, this study could certainly displace some of the more lighthearted offerings that students are exposed to. We don't come with "owner's manuals" but don't our children deserve to be taught how to make enlightened food choices other than in the occasional news story?

Apr. 19 2012 08:59 AM
BrendaTNYC from New York City

So looking forward to hearing this discussion! Health experts, food security advocates and the like, have been saying that diminished access to whole foods has contributed to increased rates of obesity and obesity related illness. But as new studies have found, it's not necessarily about lack of access than it is access to too much. In other words, it's not a food desert it's a food amusement park.

Apr. 19 2012 07:51 AM

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