As Experts Agree Food Deserts "Do Exist," Right-Wing Media Use Flawed NY Times Article To Claim They Don't


A recent New York Times article highlighted two studies that the article claimed "question the pairing of food deserts and obesity" and may "raise questions about the efforts to combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods." While right-wing media have seized on the article to claim that food deserts are a "make-believe" issue, food experts have called the Times article "sloppy" and have said the two studies it highlights are "definitely outliers," in the face of "over 50 studies" in the past three years finding "the opposite."

NY Times Publishes Article Claiming Two Studies Challenge "The Pairing Of Food Deserts And Obesity"

NY Times: Two New Studies "Question The Pairing Of Food Deserts And Obesity." From an April 17 Times article headlined, "Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity":

It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, "you can get basically any type of food," said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. "Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert," he said.

Some experts say these new findings raise questions about the effectiveness of efforts to combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods. Despite campaigns to get Americans to exercise more and eat healthier foods, obesity rates have not budged over the past decade, according to recently released federal data. [The New York Times, 4/17/12]

Right-Wing Media Seize On NY Times Article To Claim Food Deserts Are A "Make-Believe" Issue And An "Obama Lie"

Fox's Monica Crowley: "You Go Into Any Major Metropolitan Area, And They Have A Whole Array Of Foods." On the April 19 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox contributor Monica Crowley reacted to the Times article by claiming that "any major metropolitan area" has "an array of foods," including fresh vegetables and fruit:

LOU DOBBS (host): I want to turn to the first lady's campaign, which I think is very worthy and worthwhile, against obesity. The New York Times reporting today, however, that two new studies have found poor urban neighborhoods actually have more grocery stores and supermarkets than more affluent areas. The first lady lamenting that urban youth do not have access to fresh fruit, foods, vegetables. What's your reaction?


CROWLEY: You go into any supermarket, you go into any bodega in New York City, or any major metropolitan area, and they have a whole array of foods. They have fresh vegetables, they have fresh fruit. I mean, the first lady said while growing up, Barack had to get on a subway, or get on a train, to get to a place that has fresh fruit. I find that very hard to believe. [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 4/19/12]

Limbaugh: Times Story Is About "Michelle Obama's Food Theories Being Dead Wrong. ... The Poor Are Not Denied Quality Food Or Access To It." From the April 18 edition of Limbaugh's show:

LIMBAUGH: The New York Times has a story on all these food theories being dead wrong -- Michelle Obama's food theories being dead wrong. They don't mention her by name specifically so much, but it's buried in the paper -- here it is. They put it in the research section of The New York Times. It's a report on two studies that completely contradict Michelle Obama's food doctrines. And it's all about the idea that neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets, and full-service restaurants too.

The idea that there's a shortage of quality food in poor neighborhoods -- it's been disproved. It's total bunk. The poor are not denied quality food or access to it, like Michelle Obama's trying to convince people. And there's another element of this survey with something similar to it as well. "Studies question the pairing of food deserts and obesity." There's no correlation, they say, to the kind of food available, in poor neighborhoods and obesity. It's the exact -- the exact opposite of what Michelle Obama has been saying. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 4/18/12] "Obama Admin Politicizes Obesity With 'Food Deserts.' " From an April 19 post on's Big Government:

Food deserts has been a chic term that liberals have thrown around to link obesity in those "deserts" to a lack of access to healthy fruits and vegetables. This allows liberals who believe in a social justice agenda to define obesity as a social injustice and gives them further license to meddle and thus right this injustice.


And this week, the New York Times published a story detailing two studies that unexpectedly found that poorer neighborhoods which could be designated as "food deserts" not only have "more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too."

Further, the studies cited by the New York Times found "no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents."


But that won't stop the left's assault on this straw man. During this campaign season, expect Michelle Obama to repeat a variation of the "if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid's lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it" line to promote government intervention against so-called "food deserts" as part of Obama's broader social justice agenda. [, 4/19/12]

American Thinker: "Hey Michelle, Inner Cities Are Really Lush Food Oases." From an April 19 blog post on American Thinker titled, "Hey Michelle, inner cities are really lush food oases":

It seems Michelle Obama will have to find another big government knows best activity in between planning for, going on and recovering from vacations. Writing in the New York Times, Gina Kolata analyzes studies that reveal, contrary to Ms. Obama's description of poor inner city neighborhoods as food deserts where food establishments only offer unhealthy high calorie chips, liquor and limp lettuce.


So, discounting for some unusual health or body chemistry problems, is it possible that people are overweight because...uhm, radical thought...they choose to eat too much unhealthy, high caloric food while expending minimal calories? In other words, it is their own fault?


Therefore, in "fighting obesity" there is no need for a government. [American Thinker, 4/19/12]

NRO: Food Deserts Are A "Make-Believe" and "Politically Expedient" Issue. From an April 18 National Review Online blog post titled "What 'Food Deserts'?":

I'm happy to see the New York Times report on two new studies about food deserts that, as the Times put it "have found something unexpected."

Um, yeah, they don't exist.


As I said, I'm glad the Times is reporting on these new studies. It's important that we focus on the real reasons kids are suffering from obesity rather than wasting time (and taxpayer dollars!) on make-believe (yet politically expedient) issues such as food deserts. [National Review Online, 4/18/12]

Power Line: "Another Obama Lie Debunked By ... The New York Times!" From an April 18 post on the conservative blog Power Line, titled, "Another Obama Lie Debunked By ... The New York Times!":

Michelle Obama, the nation's pre-eminent childhood nutritionist, has been arguing that much of the childhood obesity problem is due to the fact that too many urban children live in "food deserts," lacking access to fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. But, as the New York Times' Gina Kolata reports today, it isn't true.


I should point out in passing, by the way, that Gina Kolata is an exceptional Times reporter who often contests the conventional wisdom of the left on health and environmental issues, so kudos to her. [Power Line, 4/18/12]

But Food Experts Have Criticized The Times Article For Being "Sloppy" And Misleading

Mari Gallagher: "Food Deserts Can And Do Exist"; Times Article "Muddied The Water At Best, Misled At Worst." In a detailed rebuttal to the Times article posted on her blog, Mari Gallagher, who wrote that it was her research firm who "popularized the term 'food desert' in the U.S. in 2006," characterized the article's reporting as "sloppy." She wrote that the author "muddied the water at best, misled at worst, and left the inaccurate impression that food access and the concept of food deserts does not matter":

Our research firm popularized the term "food desert" in the U.S. in 2006 with the release of a report titled Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago. Additionally, the National Center for Public Research, of which I am the founding president, launched a highly successful three-year food desert awareness campaign shortly thereafter.


We have stressed throughout the course of our work that plopping down a grocery store does not mean that these problems are instantly solved. Yet Ms. Kolata's article unfairly suggests that community leaders, policy makers, Mrs. Obama, and so many others want to "combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods." [emphasis added] To my knowledge, no one of any credibility has ever suggested that access was the entire solution or that anything involving the complicated relationship between diet and health is simple.

Ms. Kolata's summary of two recent studies on the link between child obesity and access to healthy food was also misleading in several respects. She fails to note the large number of studies that have identified food deserts and the subsequent large number of studies that have found a link between living in underserved areas and poor health outcomes. The article fails to note the shortcomings of the two studies it touts, even though the authors of those studies themselves go to great lengths to describe those deficiencies.


Our issue is not with the two new studies; we thank the authors for their valuable contributions. Our issue is the reporter's sloppy job of getting the facts straight. Some of this could have been settled by some simple Google searches. She muddied the water at best, misled at worst, and left the inaccurate impression that food access and the concept of food deserts does not matter. [Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, 4/18/12]

Partnership For A Healthier America: "The Article Ignores The Simple Truth About Ending The Obesity Epidemic ... Food Access Was Never Touted As The Only Way To Solve The Problem." In an email to Media Matters, Partnership for a Healthier America spokeswoman Elly Spinweber responded to the New York Times article:

The article ignores the simple truth about ending the obesity epidemic in this country: there is no silver bullet. Food access was never touted as the only way to solve the problem. What we do know is that making fresh, affordable food available where people live is one piece of a broad strategy to make sure that our kids are not the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents. [Email to Media Matters, 4/19/12]

Food Trust Executive Director: Studies In Times Article "Are Definitely Outliers. ... The Overwhelming Evidence Is To The Opposite." In a phone conversation with Media Matters, Yael Lehmann, executive director of the food access non-profit Food Trust, said the two studies in the Times article "are definitely outliers." She continued:

"We were really surprised the reporter gave so much attention to these two studies. There's been over 200 studies since the year 2000, and ... just in the last three years, including some that were just published this month, there's been over 50 studies supporting the link between food access and health. The overwhelming evidence is to the opposite [of the Times article].


"The researchers themselves state over and over again that there are a lot of limitations to the studies."


"What I think the author gets wrong in this study is not every poor neighborhood is not necessarily a food desert. But what's bizarre is her example of Camden, New Jersey. ... She actually went out to visit a store -- the store she references in the article is three miles from the bulk of the 80,000 residents of Camden.

"The city she points out as a non-food desert is one of the poorest and one of the most needy cities in the country. It's outrageous that that would be her example." [Conversation with Media Matters, 4/20/12]

Food Trust Letter To NY Times: "Research Has Overwhelmingly Shown That People With Access To Healthy Food Consume More Fresh Produce And Other Healthy Items." Food Trust provided Media Matters with a copy of a letter to the editor that it sent to the Times. Food Trust wrote:

The public health community should welcome all well-designed research exploring the complicated issue of obesity. But the two new studies the reporter chose to highlight must be placed in the context of two decades of peer-reviewed research into food access and health. This research has overwhelmingly shown that people with access to healthy food consume more fresh produce and other healthy items and that people without access to healthy food are more likely to suffer from obesity and other diet-related diseases. New studies adding support to these findings -- including a 2010 study by Chaloupka et al. which found a significant association between increased supermarket availability and lower BMI -- did not make the front page.

The majority of the research tells us that improving food access for the 23.5 million Americans who lack high-quality, healthy food resources in their communities, is an essential part of a multi-faceted, comprehensive solution to the country's obesity epidemic.

Gary D. Foster, Ph.D

Professor of Medicine and Public Health; Director Center for Obesity Research & Education, Temple University

Allison Karpyn, Ph.D

Director of Research and Evaluation, The Food Trust [Email to Media Matters, 4/20/12]

Experts Agree: "The Existence Of Food Deserts" Is "An Established Fact"

Gallagher: "The Existence Of Food Deserts In Many U.S. Cities Is Not An Idea, But An Established Fact." In her rebuttal of the Times article, Gallagher wrote:

The Times piece begins with a misstatement that policy makers and first lady Michelle Obama think that all poor urban areas are food deserts. There are many poor urban areas in which residents do have significant access to healthy food options. But food deserts can and do exist in urban, rural and even suburban locations. In Chicago, many food desert residents are poor. We also identified more than 12,000 food desert households that earn $100,000 or more annually.

Ms. Kolata, who wrote the Times story, states, "It is unclear how the idea took hold that poor urban neighborhoods were food deserts," but there is really nothing unclear about it at all. The existence of food deserts in many U.S. cities is not an idea, but an established fact. [Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, 4/18/12]

Food Trust Executive Director: "There Is No Argument [About Whether] Food Deserts Exist." When asked to respond to the right-wing media's assertion that the studies show food deserts are imaginary, Lehmann said, "There is no argument [about whether] food deserts exist." [Food Trust Executive Director Yael Lehmann, conversation with Media Matters, 4/20/12]

Other Recent Studies Found Links Between Food Access And Weight, Health Outcomes

American Journal Of Preventive Medicine Study: "Present Findings Suggest That Environmental Changes Could Have Important Effects On Obesity Rates Of Children And Adults." A study published April 18 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine called "Obesogenic Neighborhood Environments, Child and Parent Obesity: The Neighborhood Impact on Kids Study" found a link between "neighborhood environment attributes" and childhood obesity. The study found that neighborhoods that had "built environments that were more conducive to walking" and "a nearby ... supermarket and few fast-food outlets" were less likely to have overweight children. The study's authors concluded:

The magnitude of the difference in obesity rates between the most obeseogenic and least obeseogenic neighborhoods was notable, about 8% for children and 7% for adults. Present findings suggest that environmental changes could have important effects on obesity rates of children and adults. There is concern that many children and their caregivers in the U.S. live in unsupportive environments that fail to provide better access to healthy nutrition and physical activity opportunities. [American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 4/18/12, via]

Lehmann Cited Several Other Studies Finding Links Between Availability Of Food In A Neighborhood And Weight Of Its Residents. In emails to Media Matters, Lehmann referenced a number of other studies finding links between food access and weight. For example:

  • Public Health Nutrition, "Access To Food Source And Food Source Use Are Associated With Healthy And Unhealthy Food-Purchasing Behaviours Among Low-Income African-American Adults In Baltimore City." This study found that "corner-store use was associated with obtaining more unhealthy food" and that "[i]nterventions to increase the availability and promotion of healthy food in highly accessed corner stores in low-income neighbourhoods are needed." [Public Health Nutrition, 3/31/11, via]
  • Journal Of Nutrition Education And Behavior, "Associations Of Built Food Environment With Dietary Intake Among Youth With Diabetes." This study found that "increased availability and accessibility of supermarkets were significantly associated with higher [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] score" and concluded, "Efforts to promote environments conducive to healthful eating may significantly improve the overall dietary intake and reduce diet-related health complications among youth with diabetes." [Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 1/10/12, via]
  • Journal of Nutrition, "Economic Contextual Factors, Food Consumption, And Obesity Among U.S. Adolescents." This study found that "lower fruit and vegetable prices, higher fast food prices, and greater supermarket availability were related to higher fruit and vegetable consumption and lower BMI, in particular for BMI among teens who are overweight or at risk for overweight and who are low- to middle-socioeconomic status." [Journal of Nutrition, June 2010]
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