Food Desert Debate Heats Up With Mari Gallagher’s Response to New York Times Story
By Monica Eng
A lot of food policy watchers were scratching their heads earlier this week over a New York Times story that said “food deserts” (low income areas with little access to healthy food) actually offered more variety and closer access to grocery stores than more affluent areas.
That conclusion runs counter to reams of research upon which a good deal of public policy has been based, policy that has prompted cities like Chicago to place more grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods as part of a public health effort.
Chicago-based food policy researcher Mari Gallagher–who popularized the term “food desert” and has advocated for better food access among many other public health efforts–says she’s gotten emails from all over the country on this story and felt the need to respond. She said she immediately wrote to the Times reporter, Gina Kolata, about her reporting on the recent food desert studies but got no response. So she took to the Internet with a rebuttal this morning on her blog.
Gallagher’s main criticism of the story was that it started with a false premise: that anyone has promoted food access improvements as a silver bullet for the obesity epidemic.
“We have stressed throughout the course of our work that plopping down a grocery store does not mean that these problems are instantly solved,” Gallagher wrote. “Yet Ms. Kolata’s article unfairly suggests that community leaders, policy makers, Mrs. Obama, and so many others want to ‘combat the obesity epidemic simply by improving access to healthy foods.’ [emphasis added] To my knowledge, no one of any credibility has ever suggested that access was the entire solution or that anything involving the complicated relationship between diet and health is simple.”
The academic and president of the National Center on Public Research, further noted problems with comparing store proximity in suburbs–where most people travel by car–and low-income urban areas, where many rely on walking on public transportation.
Kolata responded to Gallagher’s statments Thursday by saying:
“The three papers I referenced were thorough and scientific and used different samples and methods and came to the same conclusion. If she does not like what they said or how the investigators did their work, her issue is with the researchers.”
Gallagher, however, called the new studies “valuable contributions” while noting the authors’ own admissions of limited sample size and use of sometimes unreliable data.
In the end, the researcher said, Kolata’s article “muddied the water at best, misled at worst, and left the inaccurate impression that food access and the concept of food deserts does not matter.”