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Food deserts?

I debated the Morgan Foundation’s Geoff Simmons at last week’s Agencies for Nutrition Action annual conference in Auckland. We started by telling the audience, generally nutritionists and public health advocates, that they’re generally wrong in advocating for removing GST from preferred foods – the administrative hassles that would create are enormous. We also agreed that content regulation, like sinking lid policies on salt content, are far less preferred than excise taxes on bad things.

Geoff and I then debated the relative merits of going any farther than providing consumers with information about nutrition. I argued that information provision is the policy that least risks violating consumer sovereignty, that respects individuals’ preferences, and allows people to make the choices that are right for them. There’s more that the government could do on this front – in particular, more schools could offer home ec classes that would teach basic cooking skills and how to design a meal on a budget (with the kids then cooking for the family as homework). But going beyond that is risky: if people don’t do what you want them to do after you’ve told them about the costs of bad diets, it could well be that the problem isn’t that they’re stupid but rather that their preferences are different from the typical nutritionist’s preferences. Further, the case for consumer sovereignty has never relied on perfect information or perfect rationality among consumers but rather on that individuals have better incentives than bureaucracies to get things right and to modify their behaviour if they’re getting things wrong. Individuals are less likely to get things persistently wrong over very long periods. Government, on the other hand, well, bad policy can be very sticky.

Geoff highlighted failures in individual rationality and that it may be expecting too much of people to expect them to make choices that are good for them. He argued for excise taxes on bad stuff with money then used to pay for nutrition-friendly programmes.

I have a few problems with Geoff’s framework. First off, if nutrition programmes pass cost-benefit, they’re worth doing regardless of whether there’s a new tax. While bundling these kinds of things can make them politically saleable, it does violence to good economics. But more generally, I’m exceptionally nervous about measures that presume to supplant individuals’ choices *for the individuals’ own good”. There are a lot of people who have a lot of ideas about what would be good for other people. I hope those people can someday form a club where they all agree to be subject to each others’ bright ideas and leave the rest of us alone. I wonder how long it would take before they were screaming to leave.

Back now though to this post’s title: food deserts. One questioner at the end asked about food deserts and whether an absence of available healthy food options in poor neighbourhoods might be the problem. I’m again pretty sceptical. Stores locate where they think shoppers will want their products. If fresh vegetable shops stocking kale tend not to think it profitable to set up in very poor neighbourhoods, it’s likely because customers in those areas really don’t like kale all that much.

Some recent American evidence: banning fast food restaurants in poor neighbourhoods does nothing to affect obesity. Tyler at Marginal Revolution also recently summarised the state of the literature on the issue: it isn’t an issue.

I’ll have more on the debate, and what nutritionists think about policy, in a future post. Fun fact: going into the debate, 10% of the nutritionists thought banning “junk food” by 2025 was a good idea!

About Eric Crampton (87 Articles)
I'm Head of Research with the New Zealand Initiative.

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