No Matter How Many Fruits N' Veggies There Are, The Sweet Stuff Sells

The Bloomberg Administration has proposed a policy that will make people drink less soda and sweetened juices, and presumably combat obesity among the inner city poor. And yet more than a few consider that a bad thing. Let’s tackle some of the assumptions at play in making so many people okay with inner city people drinking as much soda as they tend to now.

Some object that the ban would penalize the poor or deprive them of choice. Most certainly, plenty of laws penalize the poor and deprive them of choice in ways difficult to justify. After this objection, though, you have to suggest what would work better. After all, our goal here is to address the obesity epidemic among the poor and to change eating habits.

Many have different ideas about how to change the habits in question. One popular idea is that the rise in obesity among the poor is due to a paucity of supermarkets in inner-city areas. This factoid has quite a hold on the general conversation about health issues and the poor for two reasons. It sits easily in the memory, and it fits into a pathway of thinking that we are accustomed to -- that poor people’s problems are due to societal injustice, and that as such, to reverse the problem will require undoing injustice.

Let’s accept that it would be ideal if all city residents lived within a few blocks of a supermarket. However, how plausible can it be to New Yorkers that there is a causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket?

Fairway has been thriving in West Harlem for almost fifteen years, notoriously overflowing with lovely, accessibly priced produce. Plenty of local black people shop in it. It’s a walk away for many, and for others, there is even a shuttle service. Yet obesity is currently still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in Greenwich Village. Note also the typical C-Towns in struggling neighborhoods, amply stocked with fresh produce at moderate prices, where the average weight of people is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side .

It was one thing to read four years ago about the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and lowfat milk. The idea was that people who rely exclusively on nearby bodegas would be healthier if they could buy fresher and less fatty food there. But it was another thing to follow up on the results. After two years, only one in four stores reported people buying more vegetables, and one in three reported people buying more fruit.

It's hardly rocket science that human beings acquire a palate through childhood experience, cultural preferences, and economics. Note that the economy is on that list – the cheapness of sugary drinks is notorious, and it creates an appetite for them. Someone raised on fruity sodas and juices is as likely to prefer them permanently – even if Fairway is down the street -- as someone raised on pita bread and hummus will eat that way forever.

Culture also plays a role. Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had. Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes north (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried chicken dinners). I myself was raised on a cuisine stamped by the salty realm, and I alternate eternally between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that taste for grease.

Here, then, is where the food stamp policy is apropos. To wit, if we are truly interested in changing the rates of obesity issue, our take cannot simply be that sugary and high-fat food is all that is within walking distance to poor New Yorkers. It simply isn’t true. Rather, there are habits that people of all walks of life develop for any number of reasons, which they can be and often should be dissuaded from. Bloomberg’s tax on cigarettes and his indoor smoking ban have demonstrably helped New Yorkers either quit or cut down. Finland made a serious dent in a notorious alcoholism problem with taxation.

The question is whether a society deems it wise to devote resources to dissuasion of this kind. Our decision should be based on effectiveness, and cannot rely on a notion that for poor people, kale and apples being sold four blocks away are out of reach.