Do ZIP codes eat?

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 06, 2012 06:25 pm

We reacted to the public service announcement aired on a local radio station with a sensation approaching horror.

Just 33 percent of Baker County “has access to healthy food,” the announcer informs listeners.

The spot concludes with what’s obviously supposed to sound like the voice of a pitiful child who says, in a plaintive tone, “Mom, I’m hungry.”

It is indeed a troubling notion, that two-thirds of us in Baker County — about 10,800 people — can’t get healthy food.

But then we consulted the source of that statistic.

That’s the annual County Health Rankings report compiled by the University of Wisconsin.

Considering the methodology behind that 33-percent claim, that the radio spot doesn’t tell the whole story is the most charitable description we can muster.

The equation from which the 33-percent figure is derived is simple:

Tally the number of ZIP codes in the county. Then count how many of those ZIP codes have within their borders what the surveyors deem a “healthy food outlet” — defined as a grocery store or a produce stand or farmers market.

Lastly, do the division.

In Baker County’s case, three of the nine ZIP codes have a “healthy food outlet.”

Thus the 33 percent figure.

But the public service announcement doesn’t say that only 33 percent of the county’s ZIP codes have a healthy food outlet.

It says this: “Only 33 percent of Baker County has access to healthy food.”

We’re convinced that the vast majority of listeners — ourselves included, at least initially — would conclude that the announcer means only 33 percent of county residents have access to healthy food.

Why, after all, would anyone presume that a statistic related to food access would be based on ZIP codes, which don’t eat, rather than on people, which do?

The discrepancy that results is especially blatant in Baker County.

More than 60 percent of the county’s residents live in the 97814  ZIP code that includes Baker City.

That’s one of the three ZIP codes that contain a healthy foods outlet — several of them, in fact.

The ZIP codes that lack such an outlet — Hereford and Oxbow, for instance — combined account for less than 20 percent of the population.

Moreover, it’s hardly plausible to assume that people who don’t live within a stone’s throw of a grocery store lack access to healthy food.

Bridgeport is pretty remote, to be sure.

But there are roads leading from there clear into Baker City, with its cornucopia of grocery aisles and a seasonal farmers market besides.

The roads are even paved.

The bottom line here is that even using the University of Wisconsin’s methodology, considerably more than 33 percent of Baker County residents have “access to healthy food.”

To imply otherwise, as the radio ads clearly do, is misleading.

Which is a pity, because the goal behind the series of four radio spots, sponsored by the Baker County Prevention Coalition, is worthwhile.

The Coalition paid for the ads with a $5,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. The $500 radio campaign is designed to raise public awareness of the overall health of county residents.

The other spots deal with important topics such as the dangers of smoking, obesity,  and binge drinking.

And those ads, unlike the one dealing with access to food, don’t include statistics that are likely to be misinterpreted.