Where to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in Wyndham (source: City of Wyndham)

The Age published a story on Saturday describing the municipality of Wyndham in Melbourne’s outer western region as home to Victoria’s sickest suburbs. The paper says it suffers from “high levels of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mental health issues, bad teeth, obesity, asthma”. (1)

Senior writer Chris Johnston says food mapping by the City of Wyndham reveals the municipality “has 192 fast food outlets against 34 fresh food shops; that’s nearly six takeaways for every fresh food outlet”. Poor health outcomes seem to be linked to food availability in Wyndham. (2)

That comparison might look ominous at first glance, but as I’ve discussed before, the geography of food access has little to do with topical issues like diabetes and obesity.

In this case, there’s no reason to think 34 fresh food shops is too few. It’s one fresh food outlet for every 1,550 households; that’s not a gross deficiency in a car-oriented outer suburban growth centre like Wyndham. (3)

It’d be amazing if there weren’t a lot more fast food outlets than fresh food shops, just as there are vastly more clothing retailers than mercers like Spotlight.

The fresh food shops identified by Council are mostly supermarkets such as Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA; the greater scale economies and market restrictions associated with the grocery industry means there’s bound to be many fewer of them than fast food outlets. (4)

I discussed the “food deserts” claim once before when Michelle Obama decided to kick this can (see Are Michelle Obama’s ‘Food Deserts’ a myth?). As I noted then, research in the US indicates that low income areas don’t in fact have a significant shortfall in supermarkets and grocery stores.

Dr Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California studied a national sample of 11,400 children over the period from kindergarten to fifth grade and compared changes in body weight against their access to various food establishments. This is an important study because it’s both longitudinal and national.

She found the density of fast food convenience stores in predominantly minority and poor neighbourhoods is indeed higher than in more affluent and majority areas, but so is the density of supermarkets, large scale grocers, corner stores and full service restaurants.

Dr Lee concluded that “differential exposure to food environments bears little relationship to childhood obesity development” (there’s a full ungated copy of her paper here). She suggests targeting limited food availability is not a promising childhood obesity prevention strategy.

The more relevant factors for understanding unhealthy weight gain are the socio-demographic characteristics of children and families and proximate behaviours within the home context.

The Director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Kelly D. Brownell, agrees. He told the New York Times that “it is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores….But if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking.”

Update 5 August 2015: The truth about food deserts.

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  1. Is it all bad news in Wyndham? According to the University of Adelaide’s Social Health Atlas of Australia, the age standardised rate (ASR) of diabetes mellitus per 100 in the adult population of Wyndham is 5.5 compared to 5.0 for Greater Melbourne. The corresponding figures for other conditions are: high blood cholesterol (32.6 vs 33.1; mental and behavioural problems (11.5 vs 12.3); circulatory system diseases (16.5 vs 16.4); hypertensive disease (10.8 vs 10.0); respiratory system diseases (26.8 vs 29.1); asthma (9.5 vs 10.0); chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (1.8 vs 1.8); musculoskeletal system diseases (25.3 vs 26.0); arthritis (12.8 vs 13.5); obese (26.5 vs 24.5); overweight but not obese (35.7 vs 35.3); smokers (18.4 vs 17.0); high health risk alcohol consumption (2.9 vs 2.9). Do these comparisons clearly signal that Wyndham is “a disaster waiting to happen”?
  2. The article cites other factors too, like smoking. My interest is in the “food deserts” angle; it’s also picked up in a table accompanying the article.
  3. The table accompanying the article strongly implies there are a total of approx 550 food outlets in Wyndham, so the 198 fast food outlets and 34 fresh food shops don’t make up a majority of all food outlet
  4. The 34 fresh food shops break down into 9 greengrocers and 25 supermarkets. The list also includes an additional 11 mixed businesses selling fresh food, including stores like cultural supermarkets i.e. the total number of fresh food businesses in Wyndham is 45.