Study: Feds Wasted $500 Million Fighting the 'Food Desert' Mirage

P. Gardner Goldsmith | June 16, 2016
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After five years and half a billion dollars consumed, the federal government has finally admitted in a new study that it has failed in its Quixotic attempt to eliminate so-called “food deserts."

What are “food deserts”? And why did the feds shake down taxpayers to the tune of $500 million in a predictably useless attempt to change them?

To answer this Scooby Doo mystery, we need to time-travel back to the early 2000s, when MTV still played music, Mr. Rogers still played TV dad for kids, and leftists started railing about a so-called “crisis of obesity” in the US.

After all, as Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emmanuel said, politicians should never squander a good crisis.

In the early 2000s, collectivists began crying about the so-called “Obesity Epidemic,” as if people were catching obesity, as if it were a problem that, nine times out of ten, were not under one’s own control. It was an “epidemic,” we were told, even though use of that term in this case did profound damage to the Greek word, which means “upon people,” and was supposed to be used for maladies that, well, came upon men, rather than things men brought upon themselves.

A few years after that rhetorical groundwork had been laid, leftists became more overt in the claim that obesity was caused by people other than those who had made themselves obese. It was “society.” Society made it so. Thus, in 2004, Ted Koppel, High Priest in the Church of Holy Pomposity, said on ABCs “Nightline” that a talk radio host was just unenlightened about America’s “collective” weight:

"…I gather that my friend, the radio host, was put out by the notion that obesity might be the responsibility of anyone other than the obese person… This was one of those classic rants about freedom and responsibility.  We are all free, in other words, to eat whatever we want.  And, if we become grossly overweight, it is our own responsibility and nobody else's…  Bluntly stated, if you're fat, it's your own damn fault.  There is some truth to that.  But if, for example, you are poor, live in the inner city, and have no transportation of your own, you are significantly more likely to be obese than if you are well-off, drive your own car and live in the suburbs. And while education does make a difference, it's not the key factor. Take a look at what 'Nightline' producer Marie Nelson and correspondent Michel Martin found."

So Koppel and his associate, Ms. Martin, found causation in correlation, and told viewers that because urban convenience shops, “bodegas,” and corner stores don’t carry lots of nutritious food, residents of these areas had to “run gauntlets” of bad nutrition, and were obese as a result.


No. Really. They actually said this stuff.

They claimed it was hard for urban dwellers to get lower-calorie food, because the stores didn’t stock it. It never seemed to cross the minds of the “Nightline” staff that maybe, just maybe, the stores weren’t stocking piles of “good food” because their clientele didn’t buy enough of it to warrant the use of more shelf space.

Rather than speculate from some lofty and expensive network news office, I actually spoke to the owner of a convenience store and asked him if he would stock more fruit and vegetables if there were more demand for it over, say, Cheetos and soda.

"Of course!" he said.

When told about the argument offered by Michel Martin and the proponents of government intervention in diet, he laughed, and said, "That's crazy! They don't know who is in charge here!"

At the time I reported on this in 2004, I had only heard about this terrible scourge, not the proposed “solution.”  In fact, the term “food desert” wasn’t even in the lexicon.

But a few years later, the paternalists were hard at work promoting it, and calling for government fixes. In 2005, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched its “Healthy Bodega Program,” which used piles of tax cash to bless corner markets with refrigerators for “seasonal fruit and vegetables,” pushed monumentally witty campaigns like “Moooove to 1% Milk,” and subsidized the marketing and sale of fruits and veggies in urban areas like Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn. Proponents of the boondoggle cited brown bananas on tiny shelves to show that there was a need for the government to get more fruits and vegetables into those stores.

Very few noted the fact that the bananas turned brown on the shelves because, well, no one bought them.

After New York, other states followed suit, spending millions to turn “Food Deserts” into flourishing vitamin oases, and in 2011, behind the courageous leadership of the First Lady, the federal government got into the act.



Today, after half a billion dollars, promotional campaigns, a USDA “Food Desert Map” to pinpoint the wastelands, and seemingly endless harangues from Michelle Obama, the USDA's results of the crusade are in - and guess what?

You got it. Not only were the efforts ineffective, but the entire concept of “food deserts” is faulty.

Not only do 90% of people in the inner cities make their weekly food purchases at supermarkets, rather than corner stores, but also, when politicians tried to seed corner stores with “good food,” customers did not significantly change their buying behavior.

Funny how actually asking someone in the convenience store industry secured that information without spending half a billion dollars. It’s almost as if sellers respond to consumer preferences, and don’t force things on people.

Apparently, that's the government's job.

The trick of this is that the paternalists seem incapable of understanding peaceful market interaction – that force is not required. They appear to have a default mentality that considers force to be the prime mover in human relationships, and sees force as the answer to everything. To these people, personal choice is not an option, and blame cannot be placed on the individual who makes bad decisions.

It’s the market society that is at fault.

Which brings to mind the cult film “Repo Man.” At the close of the film, Duke (played by Dick Rude), an old friend of the main character, lies dying after his botched attempt at armed robbery, and with his last gurgling breath, he focuses on his problem:

“I-- I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate… but in the end, I blame society! Society made me what I am!”

To which the main character, Otto (Emilio Estevez), replies: “That’s bulls**t. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.”

Too bad politicians are so much like Duke, and not more like Otto. When individuals make bad decisions that damage their own lives, they blame society, and demand tax cash to apply their utopian plans.

So, the fight against “food deserts” will likely continue, despite this being a non-problem, and the outcry about “America’s obesity epidemic” will not cease.

Perhaps, it is government that should go on a diet.

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