While most Americans eat unhealthy foods, it's those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder whose diets often fare the worst. Past research shows that poorer American families tend to eat more unhealthy foods, and that the disparity between how healthfully rich and poor Americans eat has only widened over the years.
One popular idea for closing that gap is eliminating food deserts, a term used to describe low-income neighborhoods whose residents don't have a store within a mile where they can buy healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread. In 2014, the Farm Bill set aside $125 million for initiatives to bring farmers' markets and grocery stores to food deserts, but Congress didn't re-fund the program in 2015. But would improving food deserts actually fix Americans' diets? A new essay, published in PLoS Medicine, argues that it wouldn't. "Evidence from longitudinal studies has raised substantial doubt about the connection between food access and health," write Harvard University researchers Jason Block and S.V. Subramanian. The argument is perhaps a thin silver lining to yesterday's Associated Press report, which found that few grocery-store chains have opened shops in food deserts, despite promising to do so in 2011.
Instead, Block and Subramanian offered a few alternate suggestions:
1. TEACH REALLY YOUNG KIDS TO EXERCISE AND EAT HEALTHY
A study of the "Romp & Chomp" program in Geeling, Australia, which taught kids in daycare to eat better and play more, found that toddlers who participated in Romp & Chomp were less likely to be overweight or obese. Romp & Chomp alums also ate fewer packaged snacks and drank less "cordial," which we gather is a weird Australian form of sugary drink.
2. IMPROVE STANDARDS FOR SCHOOL-LUNCH PROGRAMS
In response to media reports on school meals being unhealthy, the Department of Agriculture altered its school-lunch rules in 2010. One study that looked at the change's consequences in a Maryland school district found that students ate more vegetables.
3. REWARD FOOD ASSISTANCE USERS FOR BUYING HEALTHY FOOD
For a year, officials in Hampden County, Massachusetts, gave some users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—commonly known as food stamps—30 cents back for every dollar they spent on fruits and vegetables. Compared to families who weren't part of the prize program, rewarded families reported eating one-quarter cup more of fruits and vegetables per day. Data showed they spent $1.19 more a month on produce. These are modest gains; it's up to individual departments to determine whether such changes are worth their cost.
Policymakers could amplify the effects of reward programs with disincentives against buying unhealthy foods. A mathematical model has shown that disallowing food stamps to be used to buy sugary drinks would reduce rates of diabetes and heart disease.
Eating healthy is hard, especially for lower-income families. Luckily, there are programs that cities and states can implement to make things easier, and emerging research to show what might truly work.
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