Part of what makes obesity a wicked problem is how existing solutions — farmers markets, anti-corporate marketing — led advocates to frame the problem in particular ways. “The picture painted by advocates of grocery stores and gardens in the inner city was compelling to so many in no small part because it combined an established way of thinking about poor neighborhoods as materially deprived along with rising cultural support from middle-class Americans for eating healthier, locally grown foods,” Lee writes.
So we’re debunking “food deserts” now. More from Jacob Geller, I thought this was a useful way to think about it:
What I think is going on in America is that if someone really does want to eat healthy — and they know how to — then they will eat healthy, but huge numbers of Americans “choose” not to. The cost and the distance don’t much matter. And I put “choose” in air quotes, because people are not “choosing” per se, rather they are hooked. They buy sugar instead of broccoli, because sugar tastes awesome and goes with everything, whereas broccoli is gross. The deck is physiologically stacked in favor of sugar. The cost and the distance are virtual non-factors for most Americans, outliers notwithstanding, and obesity really does need to be tackled aggressively on the demand side, if at all possible, precisely because distance and cost are virtual non-factors.
The economist’s way of saying the same thing is that unhealthy foods (like sugar) tend to be sort of addictive, or habit-forming, or are at least advantaged by our physiology or biology, so our demand for that food tends to be pretty insensitive to price (or “inelastic”). And because our demand is insensitive to price, shifting the supply curve one way or the other isn’t going to change the quantity consumed all that much. You can fiddle with the supply curve all you like, but the problem is ultimately that this inelastic demand curve is keeping quantity consumed stuck more or less in the same place. So from a public policy and public health standpoint, it’s better to just tackle the demand curve, by shifting it leftward or making it less inelastic, through solid health education curricula or forming good eating habits during childhood, or whatever, if possible.