Art Carden's 'Wal-Mart effect'

It might seem counterintuitive that the presence of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart correlates to better measures of health, but Rhodes College professor Art Carden makes just such a claim in an essay posted at Forbes.com:

The University of North Carolina-Greensboro's Charles Courtemanche and I are finishing a study of big retail stores and obesity. In our first round of statistical analysis we found that greater consumer access to a Wal-Mart store was associated with lower body-mass indexes and a lower probability of being obese.

As we gathered more data on Wal-Mart discount stores, Wal-Mart Supercenters, warehouse clubs like Sam's Club, Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club, and other outlets, we found that the correlation holds up under a variety of different circumstances, with a clear relationship between warehouse clubs and better eating habits emerging over time. Further, we found that Wal-Mart's effect on weight is largest for women, the poor, African-Americans and people who live in urban areas.
Carden suspects that these effects are due to the lower prices available at these stores. So people are able to afford more healthful food items, and their overall purchasing power is increased, ostensibly enabling a more healthful lifestyle.

It's a pretty interesting bit of pop-econ. After all, Wal-Mart sells a lot of cheap cases of soda and bags of chips. And its stores are temples of urban sprawl, reachable only by car and floating on seas of treeless concrete. How could Wal-Mart, this icon of old-school non-green capitalism, correlate to better health?

Now think about the flip side of the coin, the disadvantaged segments of society who don't have access to a Wal-Mart or a Kroger, much less a Whole Foods or a farmers' market. Their only available place to shop might be a corner grocery with no fresh produce, no butcher, and no discount card -- but plenty of cigarettes, sugary drinks and snack cakes. If these people were able to shop at a Wal-Mart Supercenter, they could buy more healthful products and still have some money left over to save for a new pair of running shoes or a bicycle. As Carden says, the study shows us "how truly incremental economic progress really is."


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