New research from Tufts University and a USDA economist published by the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review casts doubt on the popular theory surrounding so-called food deserts in the U.S. The concept of a “food desert” originated in the United Kingdom, where it was known as a populated area with little or no retail food outlets. It evolved into areas with physical or economic barriers to accessing healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Associate Professor Parke Wilde and Postdoctoral Scholar Joseph Llobrera, both from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, and Michele Ver Ploeg from USDA’s Economic Research Service, are the authors of “Population Density, Poverty, and Food Retail Access in the United States: An Empirical Approach.” The researchers used U.S. Census blocks in random sampling to determine the “adequacy of the local food retail environment in the continental United States.” They say their research “builds upon simple empirical relationships between population density, poverty rates, vehicle access and proximity to the nearest supermarket.” The work suggests that food deserts, which have been used to advance a host of agendas over the years, are more rare than most think. “In contrast with the conventional wisdom,” the authors wrote. “the results show that high poverty block groups had closer proximity to the nearest supermarkets than other block groups did, on average 85.6 percent of high-poverty block groups had a supermarket within one mile, while 76.8 percent of lower-poverty block groups had a supermarket within this distance.” The study found population density “is a strong predictor of proximity to the nearest supermarket.” There is a footnote stating that the analysis and conclusions are those of the authors and not of USDA or its Economic Research Service. USDA’s Ver Ploeg was the primary author of an ERS report to Congress on food deserts that was mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. That study, too, found the number of Americans without access to both supermarkets and cars is quite low. “Block groups with a very high population density generally had very close proximity to a nearest supermarket, “ the authors continued. “In block groups lacking a nearby supermarket, raters of automobile access generally were quite high (more than 95 percent), although this still leaves almost 5 percent of the population in these areas lacking both an automobile and nearby supermarket.” Among the various agendas propelled forward by the notion of widespread existence of food deserts have been tax breaks for Walmart locating in the Chicago area, where access to healthy foods was identified as a problem.