Thursday, April 25, 2013

Food Deserts, Joint Determination, and the Euvoluntary Exchange of Nutrition

"Food deserts" are alleged pockets of substandard food choices available in impoverished neighborhoods, usually those in large cities and populated by poor minority inhabitants. You'll typically hear two sorts of arguments why this happens (and the proof that it does happen is often simply assumed, at least in popular accounts). There's the supply side account, where grocers intentionally dupe their low-information customers into buying high-margin, low-nutrition food, exploiting the high transactions costs relatively poor customers face. The other argument, one you hear most often from the grocers themselves, is that it's a demand-side problem: when they try to put kale and organic ketchup (or whatever it is the hyper-conscious upper middle class American eats), nobody buys it and they have to end up throwing it out. So they just don't bother stocking it in the first place.

For most folks, eating is not an adventure (sorry, Tyler, but it's true). People tend to like what they like, and part of that has to do with the available choices. I hate to invoke path dependency, but in the case of food, it's probably close to the mark. People develop tastes for cuisine as they age, perhaps experimenting a little bit from time to time, but mostly sticking to the rivers and the streams that they're used to. If the path dependency story is true, then we've got a Gordian knot, where people don't buy exotic foods because it's not available because people don't buy it, etc, ad infinitum. What does this imply about the euvoluntarity of exchange in food in these so-called food deserts?

What is the BATNA?

Good question. We can try, through the political process, to force vendors to sell high-end, organic foods, specialty breads, artisan cheeses, hand-raised fowl and the like in underserved neighborhoods and then scratch our heads in befuddlement as the contents of their shelves rot in alleyway dumpsters weeks later. We can try to educate folks on the benefits of high-quality nutrition int he hopes of changing the preferences of poor folks (I'm not sure anyone's forwarded this daft idea, but I wouldn't be shocked to discover someone has). We could flex our zoning restrictions muscle and nix the corner bodega, that way inner city inhabitants would have to take the city bus across town to shop (and probably buy the same stuff) in the more affluent stores. I'm sure there are lots of schemes that might work.

Or maybe we could consider knocking it off with all the paternalism. Maybe it's the case that all the good intentions just make people more miserable than they were without the do-goodery. Maybe food ain't euvoluntary. Is that an excuse for third parties to don a social toque and heave to in the crew's mess? Are my meals your business? Or are you justified telling me what I can and can't eat by virtue of the fact that you've assumed responsibility for my health care?


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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?