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The USDA's Food Deserts? More Like A Mirage.

Dr. David Gratzer at the Washington Examiner picked up on the Federal Government's "food desert" map:

13.5 million Americans are supposedly McVictimized by food deserts. That's less than 4.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

You don't need a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand that food deserts are, at best, a very small aspect of a vast problem.

A few months ago, the USDA released a glitzy online map charting the location of every food desert in America. Urbanist blogger Angie Schmitt was baffled to find her home at the edge of a Cleveland food desert, even though she's "never had better access to food in [her] life."

The explanation: She lives near a successful, family-run grocery. But the USDA bureaucracy defines "access to fresh food" as access to a large supermarket with more than $2 million in annual sales.

Neighborhood bodegas? Family grocers? Produce markets? None of them count, whether they stock fresh food or not.

It got me thinking. I have a real abundance of food choices near where I live. Farmers Markets, mega-chains like Target and Wal-Mart, Texas-based chains like HEB. Central Market grocery stores, which are part of the HEB family. Randall's. Fiesta. Whole Foods has its headquarters and flagship store here. A new "waste-free" grocery store called in.gredients is opening soon. There are small grocery stores that specialize in organic produce or meat.

There's no way, I thought, that the core of Austin has any of these "Food Deserts," defined by the USDA as "low-income census tracts where a large number of residents are more than a mile from a grocery store."

First off, it's true that Austin's core does have ample numbers of jobless (or underjobbed) hipsters, students, and recent UT graduates, but generally real estate in the core of Austin is pricey, jobs are good, and people are well off. Secondly, as noted above, Austin is a foodie paradise. Not only do we have an abundance of food trailers experimenting and innovating, among the best Tex-Mex and BBQ you'll find anywhere, and some of the more groundbreaking chefs in the country, we're ground-zero for what you might call the modern grocery store "experience."

So, I looked at the USDA's Food Deserts map, and sure enough, Austin has wastelands all throughout its core, according to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.:


Okay, a five second google search of "Austin, TX grocery stores" turns up a plethora of grocery options:


Now, some of those red dots are certainly exactly the kind of nefarious places the USDA is trying to call out. 7-11, QuickMart, gas stations, etc. But there are far more legitimate grocery options than just those labeled with letters. Among those not marked with a letter:
-Sun Harvest (soon to be Sprouts), a grocery store with a fantastic produce selection.
-Central Market, one of the better grocery stores you'll ever visit.
-Royal Blue Grocery (three of them), which offer groceries, sandwiches, and more, right in the heart of busy downtown corridors.
-Farm to Market Grocery, a robust spot right in the heart of one of the USDA's pink "desert" zones.
-Fresh Plus Grocery, which is exactly what you'd think of if I said "neighborhood grocery store."
-Phoenicia Bakery & Deli, which is really more of a grocery store than the name might indicate.

Not to mention a few bustling Farmers Markets which set up around town each weekend, or specialty Mexican meat markets, Asian groceries, and so forth.

I could go on.

Austin's central core is the furthest thing from a food desert that you can imagine. Central Austin is a Foodie Delight. There are few places in America with such variety and diversity of cheap and high end, healthy and hangover, ethnic and 'merican, chain and mom and pop, cuisine, all throughout town. Austin invented Whole Foods, for pete's sake. Sure, there are places all over America with their own amazing food. Chinatowns, Little Italies, Polishtowns-- there are some unique ethnic food districts in cities all over the country, with markets that sell rare items you can't readily find in American supermarkets, and Austin doesn't have anything that holds a candle to those vast, specialized districts. But, there's no place in America with such a dense and rich variety of grocery stores and other fresh food vendors than Austin. There may be no "Foodier" town than the core of Austin, Texas. The data back me up on this.

Which brings us back to the United States Department of Agriculture. How many tax dollars did they waste on this ridiculous "Food Desert" map? What is their aim in misrepresenting food options in urban centers?

Dr. Gratzer explains:

As first lady Michelle Obama explained last March, "families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options."

In the war against obesity, irrigating the food desert has become a priority. From New York to Chicago to L.A., it's become a focus of city initiatives, and the federal budget earmarks nearly $400 million to eliminate the problem.

So they're spending half a billion dollars trying to rectify a problem that doesn't exist, all while justifying their useless pork with "data" and "maps" that don't pass the smell test.

Posted by Will Franklin · 21 July 2011 01:26 PM


Dear Michelle 1stLady Obama,

It was my hope to work to eliminate an area of concern associated with the USDA Food Desrts project. In the last 4 months, I contacted WalMArt stores to inform them of a concept that I have for increasing volume sales through to reach communities that are seemingly even invariably for the lack of franchises and obligaated tothe few market outlets available to them. My hope is to engage an initiative to break through the barriers to allow the flow of these types of markets to enter into the communities perceived as historically disparaged.

For the communities that are not incorporated in the plan engaged by Michelle Obama, it is my continuing hope to work together a plan to approach these markets to bring the people nearer the point of access to the products and services and the prices required by them and all Americans in the urban regions.

Thank You,
Willa Bailey

Posted by: Willa Bailey Coordinator for EM-T at July 21, 2011 03:05 PM

Point taken regarding Austin, and gov't research in general. . .

However, in the social wonderland known as Detroit, by the time the city was 30 years into 50 years of continuous Democrat rule, not only had big chain grocery stores left the city, but so had the mom and pop stores, and even most gas stations / convenience stores that carried more than beer and smokes. . .

Given that pre-1960 Detroit had an ethnically diverse grocery "scene" nearly on par with NYC or today's Austin, it's especially tragic how quickly that scene was destroyed. . .

Welfare-driven single-parent families, centralized, high-rise, government-subsidized housing, the employment cyclicality created by a union chokehold on the local economy, and a half-century of Democrat city government all contributed to the demise of the city's once-vibrant neighborhoods, and the grocery markets they supported. . .

Of course if the original plan was to turn most of the city into an un-savable ghost-town that would serve no better use than to be "de-developed" into farmland, as has been recently proposed, then I guess the Democrat dream was achieved.

Posted by: Junk Science Skeptic at July 21, 2011 10:52 PM

Has it ever occured to these map makers that not everyone wants to live in a commercial area? I live in the country by CHOICE. Some people like the city, but a significant percentage of our population feels otherwise. Even in cities, I doubt that people want a grocery store on every corner. This bogus study was just another example of government wrongheadedness and waste. As far as Detroit, who destroyed it? The citizens themselves by voting for democrats.

Posted by: Ken West at July 23, 2011 03:07 PM

I'm getting a kick out of the fact that suddenly WalMart is one of the good guys. Think of the food wastelands we'll have if other parts of this administration's constituency get their wish and WM has to start passing the cost of benefits for every part-time employee on to customers.

Posted by: Brian at July 24, 2011 05:34 PM