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American Food Desert, Fast Food Swamp

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By HVculture on August 12, 2011

By any and all available metrics, the United States as a whole is growing fat. Morbidly obese would be another way to put it. When your healthiest state still has 1 in 5 citizens overweight (stand up and take a bow, Colorado) and the majority are looking at 1 in 3, then something is going wrong.

America has been on the wrong side of the fat wave as it barrels into Death’s Beach for close to 25 years, but particularly in the last 15. You might even be inclined to call it an epidemic. A new theory being floated by the USDA is that one factor related to this problem is due to what is being called, “America’s food deserts” — areas of the country where at least 20 percent of the inhabitants are below the poverty line and 33 percent live over a mile from the nearest supermarket (or in rural areas, more than 10 miles).

By this definition, close to 24 million people in the United States live in a food desert. Trapped in a land of fast food, microwaveable meals and dastardly GMOs; cut off from the bountiful harvest of fresh produce, meats and dairy products, these Americans are left to morph into characters from Wall-E.

Well, at least that’s how the theory is portrayed by the USDA anyway. The problem with this theory is that most people in these areas own automobiles (93 percent of them) and driving to a supermarket a mile or two away really isn’t that taxing. At the same time, the metric doesn’t take into account things like farmer’s markets, roadside stands, or neighborhood grocery stores, which could be scattered throughout these predominantly rural areas.

The Week takes a look at some of the actual factors that could be driving America’s bad food habit, which has driven higher obesity rates, including the over-abundance of fast food joints.

A recent University of North Carolina (UNC) study of the eating habits of 5,000 people over 15 years found that living near a supermarket had little impact on whether people had healthy diets. But living close to fast-food outlets did. The real problem, the study found, is the existence of “food swamps,” filled with convenience stores selling calorie-loaded packaged foods, gallon cups of soda, and other sugar-loaded beverages, and fast-food chains peddling burgers, fries, and fried chicken on almost every street corner. That’s no exaggeration: There are now five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S.

Fast food is generally cheaper, and doesn’t need to be prepared and cooked, so it’s more convenient. Studies have also shown that the huge jolt of fat, salt, and sugar fast food delivers can be almost as addictive as hard drugs (see below). Then there’s the advertising factor: Fast-food companies spend about $4.2 billion a year marketing their products as life’s ultimate rewards, through saliva-producing ads depicting cheese-and-pepperoni-covered pizzas, juicy double cheeseburgers, and steaming French fries.

The calories from fast food don’t count though if you purchase a diet Coke instead of a regular soda, right? Not to use the condescending phrase, the reality is, but here goes: America’s healthy food needs are at odds with the needs of multi-national food and supermarket companies.

Take a look at this map of fast food chains in America. The black is not the absence of a fast food location, that’s the density of McDonald’s.

For the most part, the country’s eating habits have become so divorced from actually eating food that it’s hard to believe the drastic changes needed are going to happen any time soon. Just look at Jamie Oliver’s reality show on ABC as an example of America’s reliance on salty, sugary pre-packaged meals and food items. Few people have the time or inclination to cook meals that includes vegetables and a reasonable portion or protein or carbohydrates.

“It’s simplistic thinking that if you put fruits and vegetables there, they’ll buy it,” said Barry Popkin, head of the UNC study, to The Week. “You have to encourage it, you need advertising, you need support.”

Unfortunately, major companies haven’t figured out how to exploit fresh fruits and vegetables, seasonal crops and small farmers, but until that happens, don’t expect any changes on the obesity front.

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