06.26.2012 0

Philly food project tests supply and demand

FoodBy Rebekah Rast — Food deserts are areas in developed nations where access to fresh and healthy food is limited and inadequate.

In the urban areas of Philadelphia it could be defined as convenience stores outnumbering grocery stores or markets that carry fresh produce.

These convenience stores are a great place to run in and grab a snack while you’re on the go.  In fact, Philadelphia is home to about 2,500 corner stores.  But given that Philadelphians suffer with an obesity rate of about 32 percent, the highest of any large city, some think these convenience stores should be forced into a healthy makeover.

But will adding products like vegetables and fruits to the shelves in these food desert areas result in slimmer waistlines for its customers?

The federal government thinks so and has so far given $900,000 taxpayer dollars to the city for 632 convenience stores to stock up on produce.

Now will Philadelphians opt for that apple over a bag of chips?  Only time will tell, but history, habits and desires do provide some insight.

The Washington Post points out that a similar trial of this sort on a much smaller scale was attempted in the U.K. where a market was brought to an underserved area.  The result:  “Of shoppers surveyed, 45 percent switched to the new store. Their habits, however, barely changed: Consumption of fruits and vegetables increased by one-third of a cup per day — about six grapes or two broccoli florets.”

Unfortunately there is no evidence to prove that more healthy food options result in healthier lifestyles choices.  People eat what they want to eat.  Therefore it doesn’t seem likely that stocking up corner stores with fresh produce is going to change anyone’s eating habits.

Furthermore, if the people residing in these food deserts areas had a high penchant for fresh produce, stores wouldn’t need government subsidies to supply the food.  After all, one apple is likely cheaper than a bag of chips.

Once these subsidies run out, it is likely these stores will go right back to business as usual and continue to supply their customers with what they demand — chips, candy and gum.

How is this any different than what is seen in grocery stores and markets that do sell produce? Where is the candy, gum, 16-ounce sodas and personal chip bags kept at your local grocer? In the checkout line at the front of the store — usually not where you find your apples and oranges. The impulse to buy a bag of candy or chips isn’t going to go away just because more fruit is on the shelf next to it.

Enlisting federal taxpayer dollars to fund this attempt to get a city to eat healthier is a gamble at best and a waste of money at worse.  Some might enjoy the convenience of stopping by the corner store for their usual fill and picking up a head of lettuce for dinner as well.  But chances are that head of lettuce would have been purchased regardless of whether or not it was from a convenience store.

Habits don’t change overnight, and it is certainly not in the job description of the government to try and make that change.

Fast food, soda and chips are available for a reason.  People demand them.

Just because the government supplies more fruits and vegetables in an attempt to combat obesity doesn’t mean people in Philadelphia will jump on board and choose those options over their usual snacks or meals.

Only time will tell if Philadelphia’s food deserts become home to fresh fruits and vegetables in every corner store.  But the real results will show in the waistlines of its people.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government (ALG) and NetRightDaily.com. You can follow her on twitter at @RebekahRast.

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