Michelle Obama’s $400 Million ‘Food Desert’ Scam

October 27, 2010 - 5:27 AM

First lady Michelle Obama

First lady Michelle Obama discusses the findings of the Childhood Obesity Task Force report in May. (AP Photo)

First Lady Michelle Obama has called on Congress to create a $400 million-a-year program to encourage the establishment of supermarkets in places she calls “food deserts.”

The situation in these “food deserts,” as Mrs. Obama describes it, is quite dire indeed. American children are growing fat because their parents cannot get to a supermarket—to buy fruits and vegetables—without undergoing the hardship of boarding a bus or riding a taxi. As a consequence, food-desert-dwelling children are forced to eat fast food and junk procured at chain restaurants and convenience stores.

In a March 10 speech, the first lady painted a sad picture of their plight. “Right now, 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million kids, live in what we call ‘food deserts’—these are areas without a supermarket,” she explained. “And as a result these families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.”

She offered a solution. “Let’s move to ensure that all families have access to healthy, affordable foods in their community,” she said. “(W)e’ve set an ambitious goal here: to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years.

“To do that,” she said, “we’re creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that’s going to invest $400 million a year—and leverage hundreds of millions more from the private sector—to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier options.”

Pushing this $400 million food-desert-eradication plan became a standard part of Mrs. Obama’s stump speech.

In February, she promoted it in a Philadelphia neighborhood she said had just emerged from a 10-year period without a supermarket—thanks to subsidies from the enlightened state government of Pennsylvania.

“For 10 years, folks had to buy their groceries at places like convenience stores and gas stations, where usually they don’t have a whole lot of fresh food, if any, to choose from,” said Mrs. Obama. “So that means if a mom wanted to buy a head of lettuce to make a salad in this community, or have some fresh fruit for their kids’ lunch, that means she would have to get on a bus, navigate public transportation with the big bags of groceries, probably more than one time a week, or, worse yet, pay for a taxicab ride to get some other supermarket in another community, just to feed her kids.”

Congress left town for the November election without having approved any fiscal 2011 spending bill. So, as of yet, it is uncertain whether Mrs. Obama will get her $400 million-per-year to subsidize supermarkets in “food deserts.” The agricultural bill that has been working its way through Congress includes only a $40 million earmark for the program.

But does it deserve a single penny?

In the 2008 farm bill, Congress mandated that the department conduct a $500,000 study of “food deserts.” The study—“Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences”—was published in June 2009.

The report demonstrates that Mrs. Obama’s depiction of American “food deserts” is fatuous at best. Lower-income Americans live closer to supermarkets than higher-income Americans.

“Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles,” said the Agriculture Department report. “Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).”

There are 23.5 million people who live in “low income” areas that are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. But more than half of these people are not low-income, and almost everyone in these areas--93.3 percent—drive their cars to the supermarket. On average, they spend 4.5 minutes more than the typical American traveling to the supermarket.

“Area-based measures of access show that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” said the report. “However, not all of these 23.5 million people have low income.

“If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” it says. “Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes).

“However,” says the report, “93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove.”

Only 0.1 percent—one-tenth of one percent—of Americans living in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket took public transit to the store, the report said.

For them, Mrs. Obama would create a new $400 million entitlement.