Finding Food Deserts

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 18, 2011    •    704 Views

Having just learned that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a food desert website, I am not sure how we should respond.

The USDA tells us that in a food desert most low-income households have limited access to a supermarket or grocery store. In the U.S. 13.5 million people live in food deserts. The USDA states that by knowing more about food deserts, we can facilitate private-public action to eliminate them. This map shows where we can find the food deserts in the U.S.

Describing the food desert initiative, The Economist tells us that the USDA admits that they and other experts have uncovered no causal link between dietary habits and food deserts. Furthermore, a food desert might be home to healthy food stores but no supermarkets. In a food desert located close to Seattle, Washington, residents have easy access to organic food, grains, and fruits and vegetables at a roadside farm stand, a health food shop, and a “superstore.” Finally, based on obesity studies, we should ask whether people buy nutritious food when given the opportunity to purchase inexpensive processed foods and sodas.

Although the food desert concept is flawed, it does return us to the problem of how Americans eat. With two-thirds of all adults in the U.S. overweight, medical care, productivity, transportation, and human capital suffer. Discussed in a recent Brookings Institution paper, whether looking at extra sick days, extra fuel costs, or less education, the cost of obesity affects our economy.

The Economic Lesson

An externality is the impact of a behavior or contract that is experienced by a third uninvolved party. When the impact on third parties is undesirable, as with obesity, we call the result a negative externality. A benevolent impact on an uninvolved third party is called a positive externality. A community experiences the negative externality of individual obesity.

How to diminish a negative externality? Increase its source’s cost. Might food desert information assist us here?

An Economic Question: Have you experienced a negative externality that relates to obesity? Explain.

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