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The Wrong Way to Tackle Food Insecurity

According to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, more than 1 million Virginians live in food deserts. To deal with the problem, he has sponsored legislation in Congress to incentivize businesses and nonprofits to provide healthy food in those areas. And he was in Salem Wednesday visiting Feeding America Southwest Virginia to talk about food insecurity.

Reports the Roanoke Times [1]:

His legislation would provide tax credits to companies that build new grocery stores or retrofit an existing store’s healthy food sections. It also would provide grants to food banks that build permanent structures or to temporary access merchants like mobile markets and farmers markets.

What is wrong with this picture? It assumes that the problem is a supply-side problem, not a demand-side problem.

For starters, the 1 million figure is exaggerated. My previous residence in a well-to-do neighborhood of Henrico County, where I lived 16 years, qualified as a food desert according to the definition provided by the Roanoke Times: a rural area not within 10 miles of a grocery store or, an urban area not within one mile of a grocer.

I lived more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. But I had this thing called a car … so I never felt nutritionally deprived. I suspect that in the sprawling, low-density suburbs of metropolitan areas, hundreds of thousands of other well-off Virginians live in “food deserts.”

Admittedly, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of Virginians living in inner cities and remote rural areas without convenient access to grocery stores. Efforts by well-meaning do-gooders to establish grocery stores with fresh vegetables and healthy food in the inner city have not ended well. The problem is that many poor people don’t eat healthy food even when it is given to them free. They don’t like how it tastes, and they don’t know how to prepare it.

If Warner wants to incentivize anything, he needs to incentivize poor people to eat healthy food. If they develop the taste for it, they will buy it, and businesses will supply it. In other words, the fight against food deserts starts with the consumer. But changing peoples’ eating habits is not an easy job. Peoples’ food preferences are extremely conservative — that is, once established, they are very hard to change. But that’s the place to start. Offering people food they won’t eat is a waste of time.

As it happens, there are nonprofit enterprises trying to address root causes. I’ve written in the past about Tricycle Gardens, which maintains community vegetable gardens in inner-city Richmond. The nonprofit offers healthy-eating cooking classes, and shows people how to raise vegetables in their own back yards. Another group in the Richmond area, Health Brigade, provides classes on the preparation and cooking of healthy food.

Here’s what else Warner could do: He could buck the lobbying efforts of Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and other food processing companies, and reform the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) so that it no longer pays for soft drinks, potato chips, and other nutritionally worthless snack foods.

Also, he could strengthen efforts to prevent food stamp fraud. Nearly 16,000 fraud investigations were conducted in Virginia in Fiscal 2016, mainly involving people collecting food stamps who didn’t qualify or people selling their cards for cash. The number of investigations likely reflects only a fraction of the fraud that actually occurs. Tightening up the SNAP program would leave poor people with more food-stamp dollars to pay for healthier food — should they be inclined to eat it.

Yes, we want all Americans, including poor people living in food deserts, to eat healthier food. But misdiagnosing the problem helps no one.