All problems always require big-government solutions, or so our elected officials in Washington seem to think. In order to address America’s endemic obesity problem, the federal government has been appropriating billions in public funds to subsidize various initiatives aimed at encouraging Americans, especially lower-income Americans, to eat better, exercise more, and live generally healthier lifestyles.
One particular initiative that is leeching billions from American taxpayers is the Community Transformation Grants (CTG) program, which was established in 2010 as part of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The program, which is currently offering $70 million in grants to “promote healthy lifestyles” in states and local communities, is set to receive more than $15 billion in appropriations over the next decade.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which has been administering funds for the program, the grants are being offered to both government and non-government organizations that can demonstrate an ability to “improve their communities through increasing the availability of healthy foods and beverages, improving access to safe places for physical activity, discouraging tobacco use, and encouraging smoke-free environments.” The CDC also notes that grants will be made to organizations across a variety of industries, including food, transportation, housing, education, and public health.
One of the CTG program’s main goals is to eliminate the prevalence of “food deserts,” defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as areas where low-income inhabitants lack access to nutritious, affordable foods. For years both politicians and health practitioners have argued that a main contributor to America’s rising obesity rate is the prevalence of poor urban and rural communities that lack access to good selections of high-quality, affordable produce.
Recently, however, a number of studies have begun to undermine this conventional wisdom. The New York Times reported on two such studies in an article published this April. One of the studies, which was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that poor neighborhoods have nearly three times as many corner stores and nearly twice as many fast food, convenience, and large-scale grocery stores as their affluent counterparts.
Meanwhile, another study published in February by The American Journal of Preventive Medicine compiled data on the weights and food consumption habits of more than 13,000 children and adolescents and found no correlation between the aforementioned markers and the types of food available near the subjects’ homes. In other words, study subjects living close to large supermarkets were found to be no healthier than those living close to fast food chains.
This study calls into question the common assumption that behavioral modification initiatives like sin taxes, counter-advertising, signage, price controls, and product-placement schemes can have a substantial positive influence on individuals’ dietary and other lifestyle choices. As an April 25, 2012 New York Times article points out, lifestyle habits are the product of a complex myriad of factors that include not only access to healthy foods, but also income level, maternal education, culture, and genetics. As such, taxpayers should be skeptical when the government diverts billions in public funds toward financing lifestyle-altering initiatives.
Furthermore, the extent to which these initiatives are actually being used to fund organizations that promote good nutrition and overall health is highly questionable. For instance, The Washington Examiner reported in April that the El Compadre Market, a store in Portland, Ore. that doubles as a restaurant selling hamburgers and burritos, has received $4,500 in public funds through the CDC’s grant program. According to Google Maps, El Compadre is only 0.6 miles from a Grocery Outlet, 0.5 miles from a Safeway, and 0.2 miles from a local health food store, yet the business qualified for a grant by virtue of its location in what is apparently a food desert, at least according to USDA’s dubious definition.
The USDA’s website states that any “low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store” qualifies as a food desert. According to the USDA, any census tract with “a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income” qualifies as “low-income,” while any tract in which one third of inhabitants live more than a mile away from a supermarket qualifies as having “low access.” Thus, the relatively affluent St. Johns district of Portland qualifies as a food desert and is thereby eligible to receive federal funds in the form of CDC grants.
With a $15 trillion deficit hanging over our heads, we should be outraged that the government is taking money from low and middle-income taxpayers and giving it to burger joints in affluent neighborhoods. Furthermore, we should be outraged that our tax dollars are being used to fund behavioral modification-based health initiatives whose techniques are unproven at best, faulty at worst. Never mind that as it backs these so-called healthy initiatives, the federal government is heavily subsidizing corn syrup, sugar, high-fat dairy products, and $16 muffins.
The problem with top-down solutions to complex problems is that, by and large, they don’t work. Government-sponsored healthy lifestyle initiatives are no exception. Despite its good intentions, the CTG program has done much to reduce the size of our wallets but little, if anything, to reduce the size of our waistlines.