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September 18, 2009

Drain the Food Swamps!

The new farmers market in front of the White House is being rightly praised for its multi-layered symbolism. But the lower-profile kid-driven transactions that take place every day at other markets represent the great challenge for food system reform and obesity prevention. The Philly Inquirer reports:

Like clockwork at 3:15 p.m., the eighth grader - Scotch plaid shoes, cell phone pressed to her ear - exits Tairina Grocery near the corner of Fourth and York, her first stop out of Welsh Elementary School, 30 seconds away, one of a steady stream of kids leaving the store with filmy black sacks.

The contents of hers is typical - two one-ounce bags of Herr's Salt & Vinegar chips, a can of Coke, and a cake called Elim's Delight, favored by North Philadelphia's schoolkids for its price point: 25 cents.

This ritual - often played out before and after school - adds an average of 360 calories (per visit) to the kids' daily total, subverting the laborious fine-tuning of school lunches, and upping the odds of obesity-related disease.

To combat this, a group of researchers from Temple University have partnered with the innovative (and nationally recognized) Philadelphia Food Trust -- a non-profit involved with food deserts as well as farmers markets and school food -- to look for alternatives. More from the Inqy:
...A dozen corner stores around five city schools (besides Welsh, Clymer, Fairhill, Kenderton, and Robert Morris) are being not only studied, but manipulated: They're asked to post the Food Trust's Snackin' Fresh posters ("Small Size, Big Taste!" is one), stock bottled water, and visibly display coolers of chopped-fruit salads.
A crucial element of the study is to have researchers perform voluntary inspections for students' purchases -- most obesity studies rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable. And what's inside those before- and after-school shopping bags is pretty depressing. One researcher saw an eighth-grader's $1.80 haul -- a Coke, chips and piece of chocolate cake. 500 calories -- calorically (though not nutritionally) equal to the lunch served that day at school. These lunches are free to most students as the school in question participates in Philly's Universal Feeding program. As the article points out, the hard work that went into getting junk food out of these Philly schools is being almost totally undermined.

The good news is that the researchers' goal is not to eliminate all of these purchases, but to reduce them. But here's where you realize it's all about price. The bottled water with which the Food Trust supplies the participating corner stores costs 50 cents. For that price, a student can buy a sugary drink and a bag of chips. Think about that for a second. A tasteless and odorless (but refreshing!) zero calories costs twice as much as 200+ sweet and salty calories. That's Big Food's great legacy to society. Thanks, guys!

They have in essence put dirt-cheap candy stores across the street from schools across the country. For pocket change kids can eat nutritionally empty put calorie packed junk twice a day -- and their parents need never know. Meanwhile, the "candymakers" are screaming that anyone who wants to do something about this is a Communist.

At some point, we're going to have to drain these food swamps. Cities will have to uses zoning laws to restrict what can and can't be sold near school. We're going to have to tax junk food, folks. These kids' purchases are likely significantly underestimated and probably not accounted for properly in most economic models of how taxes will affect purchases. If junk food taxes did nothing else but reduce these shopping trips, they would be a rip-roaring success.

This latest effort shines invaluable light on what's going on in these corner stores. The least our politicians can do is show the courage necessary to do something about it.

Photo by loop_oh used under a CC license

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