Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thank You, Esther Cepeda

If you're familiar with this blog, or if you and I have ever had a meaningful conversation that lasted for more than 10 minutes, you already know that there's nothing I love more than to try and flip conventional wisdom on its head.

I'm not saying I take the credit for it -- there are great authors like Nicholas Nassim Talib and Malcolm Gladwell that make a living writing about such things.  There are books like Freakonomics that were written several years ago, but continue to spark lively debates about what we accept to be true, and why.  Just reading their stuff, and then talking to other people who also enjoy it, is often enough.

Anyway, I noticed in today's Sun that Esther Cepeda took on the whole "urban food desert" canard, while citing studies from the RAND Corp. and the Public Policy Institute of California.

What they found: "...low-income neighborhoods, in addition to having more fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, also have more grocery stores, supermarkets, and full-service restaurants than do more-affluent neighborhoods....A New York Times article summarizing the findings declared: 'There is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.'"

Cepeda goes on to describe the supposed "food desert" (as per the locator) near her home, which is chock full of smaller stores, predominantly Hispanic-owned, that sell fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats at lower prices than the chain grocery store three miles away.

So she's combined anecdote with statistical data.  To pile more anecdote on top of that, think about ANY place in Lowell.  The only way someone could say that ANY part of the city is a food desert would be to do so without any hands-on familiarity with the area they're talking about.  You couldn't live here for more than a couple weeks without realizing how plentiful the food options are throughout the city.

Trust me, I acknowledge the Left and the Right are equal parts guilty about some of the "truths they hold dear" that fall apart upon further examination.  In this particular case, the Left is deserving of a skewering -- the entire "urban food desert" idea falls in line with the thought that some undefined "they" is denying a certain group of people access to what would otherwise make them healthier, prevent obesity, save them money, etc.

The reality is much more complicated.  As Cepeda writes in the column "A lifestyle, not a food choice," the solution to fighting the obesity epidemic is going to have to involve people taking control of their own lives and their own destiny.  Portraying people as helpless, hapless "victims" of some unnamed food oppressor may play well with certain people's narratives, but it ultimately does a disservice to those who are supposedly being spoken for.  


Marianne said...

You may already be aware of this, but the Lowell Food Security Coalition (FSC) is currently conduction a Community Food Assessment (CFA) for the City of Lowell. One of the many reasons we (full disclosure - I'm a member of the FSC) decided to take on this project was hearing reports that Lowell is a "food desert." What we've discovered is that the truth about how people access food and what they are accessing is much more complicated than the "food desert" label implies.

Our full report should be out in the fall, but in the meantime we are continuing our data collection. More information about the Food Security Coalition and the Community Food Assesment can be found here: We're also looking for community members to help with our surveying.

KMM said...

I'm thinking about a 84 year old lady living on Bernice Ave who does not drive. She can catch the bus and go to the market in Target but it is more expensive than Market Basket and certainly not much variety of healthy food. She could possibly change buses and get to Market Basket at Treble Cove Rd., Billerica.
That's all...first thing that came to mind.

Jon and Kate said...

I get that this kills the "food desert" debate. But it also doesn't prove the point that obesity is a "lifestyle" or a choice. Fast food is almost always cheaper than grocery store produce (time spent cooking is a monetary factor in some cases). Proximity and spending are two very different factors in how people eat, and I think to use these studies to prove that eating is entirely a matter of personal decision making is simplifying the issue on the other end of the political spectrum.