Sebelius: Living a Mile from a Grocery 'May Be Too Far to Get Healthier Food'

By Penny Starr | March 6, 2012 | 7:15pm EST

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a House hearing on March 6, 2012 that families having to walk a mile to a grocery store might not be able to get healthy foods. ( Starr)

( – The administration’s definition of a “food desert” – an urban area where a significant share of the population lives more than one mile from a grocery store – came under the microscope during a Health and Human Services appropriations hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Questioning HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Republican lawmaker said it was likely most of those present at the hearing lived a mile from their nearest grocery store.

“Do you think that definition should be revisited, because one of the things is, if you are in an urban area a mile away from a grocery store you’re in a food desert – which I would think in so many cases is ridiculous,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “Have you thought of – have you looked at their definition?”

“Ah, we have sir,” Sebelius responded.

“And you think it’s a good one?” Kingston asked.

“Well, I think it’s very difficult for a family buying groceries – if they have to walk a mile with bags of groceries, it may be too far to get healthier food,” Sebelius said.

“You really think that?” Kingston asked.

“I do,” she replied.

Sebelius agreed to take another look at the definition after Kingston pointed out that the definition is silent on how people must travel the one mile to a grocery store – whether on foot, by car or by some other means of transportation.

“Because I suspect in this room most of us might live a mile away from a grocery store,” Kingston said.

“And you walk a mile to get to the grocery store?” asked Sebelius.

“Well, I don’t think the walking part is in the definition,” Kingston responded.

“Well, I’m just suggesting to you sir – “ Sebelius said.

“But it’s not in the definition so, you know, it would also be bad if, you know, you didn’t have a driver’s license, but that’s not in the definition so that’s not relevant,” Kingston said.

“We’d be happy to look at the definition,” Sebelius replied.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last May announced the effort to locate food deserts, which were defined as a “low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

“Tracts qualify as ‘low access’ tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles),” stated a press release announcing the campaign.

Vilsack said that the effort, and an associated online interactive “food desert locator” map, was in keeping with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to reduce childhood obesity by increasing access to food deemed healthy and increasing exercise.

“This new Food Desert Locator will help policy makers, community planners, researchers, and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents,” Vilsack said at the time.

Tuesday’s hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education considered President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request for $940.9 billion for HHS. The subcommittee is responsible for approving $69.6 billion of that funding.

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