Walmart to Tackle Food Deserts? Well… Almost

This week, Walmart made another big announcement about its role in expanding healthy food access in America. By 2016, the company aims to open between 275-300 stores in USDA-designated food deserts. Before we give a major altruism award to Walmart, let’s note that “these estimates are based on the company’s current real estate plans,” according to a press release.

Admittedly, the USDA Food Desert Locator is a neat tool. But it’s probably too coarse of a data set to be directly useful in locating stores (note the wide swaths of Oregon that are “food deserts”). Maybe this is useful as a first step prioritization tool, but certainly not at the real-estate parcel level. So many local factors come into play – transit, topography, weather, culture – it’s hard to say that by putting a new Walmart into a food desert we’re going to improve community health. And for Walmart to announce this as part of their healthy foods initiative is more than an insinuation that the two are connected.

At the end of the day, delivering healthy, affordable food into areas that otherwise have low physical and economic access is a worthy goal. Walmart has the potential to do both things, and to do them all across America. The main issue: the simple methodology. Read the rest of this entry »


Energy Independence: An issue of supply or demand?

In a recent Econbrowser post, Menzie Chinn takes a look at President Obama’s proposal for achieving “energy independence.”  The term is a popular one these days, with demands to revitalize the American economy, create “green jobs,” and invest in vital infrastructure.  But, as Chinn suggests, the concept of freeing our country from foreign energy (read: oil) is more complex than “Drill baby, drill.”

Why?  It’s a question of economics.  If our long-run goal is to reduce American dependence on foreign sources of energy, we must look at arenas of supply and demand.

Supply-side options include domestic drilling (including offshore sources), infrastructure upgrades for more efficient delivery, or an increased alternative energy portfolio.  Government intervention here will probably look like “carrots” (i.e. subsidies, tax incentives, etc, to stimulate desired supply).

Demand-side options could  include more efficient consumer devices, regulations on consumers (i.e. taxes), or regulation on industry (i.e. cap-and-trade).  Government intervention here will probably look like “sticks” (i.e. regulations and taxes). Read the rest of this entry »

Fast-Food Stamps: As bad as it sounds?

I’ve been thinking about my last post on the proposed use of food stamps in Kentucky fast-food restaurants. Three major points made by Yum! Brands executives:

  • They are trying to help provide another hot, prepared food option for struggling consumers,
  • Consumers have options to make more health-conscious choices, even in the fast-food restaurants (Yum! owns brands like KFC and Taco Bell), and
  • Food stamp recipients can already spend their benefits on unhealthy items at other stores.

I’m not going to get into point number one.  Yum! hasn’t said how much it might make from this new market of food stamp users.  The altruism of this claim could be debated all day long.

Points two and three are absolutely true.  You can find some healthy options in fast-food restaurants, and food stamp users can buy both healthy and unhealthy foods with their benefits.  What makes this complex is the question of access. Read the rest of this entry »

Trade-Offs: Allowing Food Stamps at KFC?

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Yum! Brands has officially stated its interest in allowing food stamp users to redeem those welfare benefits at some of its restaurants.  Yum! Brands famously owns American fast-food giants like KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, and are headquartered in Kentucky.  Currently Yum! officials are lobbying the Kentucky state government for this policy change.

On the one hand, relaxing the limits on food stamp purchases will expand access of hot, prepared, cheap meals to people that cannot typically afford adequate amounts of food.  Many of these recipients are strapped not only for cash, but time; thus, fast-food is an attractive option that fits in with an overwhelming schedule.

Yum! officials also point out that consumers will have access to nutritional information, so they should be able to make healthy choices.   Read the rest of this entry »

Will universities lead solar innovation?

For years, we’ve watched solar power, and talked (sometimes, quite conditionally) about it’s promise lead a green energy revolution.  After all, the sun’s energy is free.

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  And we’ve only made slight gains.  In 1990, solar power made up 0.07% of US energy consumption (petroleum was 40%); in 2009, solar was .12% (petroleum was 37%). Compare that to wind energy:

  • 1990 – .04%
  • 2009 – .74%

The gains are modest across the board for renewables; though solar lags, it feels like it should be an easy winner.  Perhaps this is where universities can innovate.   Read the rest of this entry »

A new approach to hunger research: ‘Map the Meal Gap 2011’

This afternoon, Feeding America released a new report, “Map the Meal Gap 2011.”  A quick summary:

“Feeding America undertook the Map the Meal Gap project to learn more about the face of hunger at the local community level. By understanding the population in need, communities can better identify strategies for reaching the people who most need food assistance.”

We have excellent data to summarize county, state, and national food security data.  But the ability (or inability) to procure an adequate amount of food is a very individualized thing, based on a host of local characteristics (transportation, grocery stores, other safety nets, etc).  Large-scale data make for neat illustrations, but local information tells the real tale of why and how people experience food insecurity: Read the rest of this entry »

Trade-Offs: Subsidize food producers or consumers?

Menzie Chinn of recently posted on the ongoing Congressional budget debate, and how it might affect agricultural programs in America.  She looks at work by several other authors to illustrate the dynamics of the situation.

This is a model trade-off scenario.  On the one hand, we have federal subsidies for farmers.  The narrative here centers around a broken agricultural economy that relies on subsidies to make farms remotely profitable, and keeps processed food prices very low for American consumers.  Ending or reducing these payments will cause hardship to our farmers, might decrease their competitiveness to foreign markets, and could cause price increases that hurt consumers in the checkout line.

On the other hand, we have federal subsidies for food assistance.  Read the rest of this entry »