Three years ago, President Obama promised that "in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science." This conceit was politically useful because it played upon the Left's stereotype of born-again Republicans. But it is an unjustified conceit for a president who has often set science aside in the rush to expand government.
The latest example came this week, when Obama's budget plan to devote $400 million to solving the problem of "food deserts" hit a minor snag. It turns out these supposedly benighted areas do not exist.
The crusade against food deserts began in earnest in February 2010, when the White House defined them as census tracts where at least 20 percent of inhabitants are below the poverty line and at least 33 percent live more than a mile from a supermarket. In every budget since, Obama has tried to make hundreds of millions in "investments" to "increase the availability of affordable healthy foods" in these "underserved urban and rural communities."
The First Lady was also quick to connect the dots between food deserts and obesity, which her Let's Move! campaign has sought to alleviate. As she put it in one speech, "We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating. But if parents can't buy the food they need to prepare those meals, because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk."
At first, the White House claimed that 23.5 million Americans lived in food deserts. But then the Agriculture Department posted an interactive map, showing that the vast majority were in rural areas, where supermarkets are understandably spread out. And so the definition of food desert was tweaked so that rural Americans had to live 10 miles from a supermarket in order to qualify. This change rescued 10 million Americans from food deserts overnight.
So how concerned should you be that the federal government is not spending enough money to get fresh produce into these food deserts? Not very, according to two new studies noted by the New York Times yesterday. One of them, published in the March issue of Social Science & Medicine, found that on average, poor neighborhoods have nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers than wealthier ones, contrary to White House spin.
The other study, originally published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found no relationship between the quality of food students eat and the type of food available within a mile and a half of their homes. In other words, in the few places where geographic access might be an issue, it is not significantly affecting families' diets.
The lesson is that the Obama administration bases its public policies on science, except when it doesn't. If the goal is to create fully funded solutions in search of problems, faith in big government can serve as an adequate substitute.