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Food For Thought: Food Deserts

April 27, 2012

If you’re like me, and constantly have food on the brain, you may have read that title as “Food Desserts” (wishful thinking) and not “Food Deserts.” But no, this is actually a very serious and interesting topic that I have touched on before but there’s some new research collected at Mother Jones (thanks for sending me this, dear reader Meggie!) that is truly fascinating.

You all know what a food desert is, right? It’s a place where there aren’t very many supermarkets. In fact, most often it’s a place with no supermarkets, and almost always it’s a poor neighborhood. But why do food deserts exist? Perhaps poor neighborhoods just aren’t very profitable places to open supermarkets. But poor neighborhoods usually have plenty of bodegas and little corner shops, and if those places can make money why can’t a supermarket? What’s more, supermarket executives have always been very cagey when they’re asked about the phenomenon, which suggests there’s more to it than mere profitability. It’s a bit of a mystery.

But now there’s another question about food deserts: Should we even care about them in the first place? For a long time, they’ve been a source of concern because supermarkets generally provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables than little corner stores. Eating well is hard enough for the poor as it is, but it becomes all but impossible if they don’t have convenient access to good food in the first place.

So many choices, so many awful choices

Basically, new research is finding that it is not the access to “different kinds of stores” that impacts weight gain in children, but there is a direct correlation between income and obesity rates. Shoppers at Whole Foods versus low-cost chain Albertsons both had access to plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the shoppers at Whole Foods (which we all know is ridiculously expensive) were far less obese.

In some ways, I am surprised by this. I mean, if you don’t have access to healthier options, then you definitely can’t take them, right? But basically what we’re being shown here is that even when people do have those options, they still don’t take advantage of them. Which, the article doesn’t mention but I will, is very indicative of education or lack thereof. If you have never been taught about health and nutrition or your family promotes and maintains unhealthy lifestyles, then no matter how much access you have to healthy alternatives, you are not going to incorporate them into your life.

Recently, I was doing a performance at a middle school here in West Virginia, and was setting up in the cafeteria when I noticed these signs:



And, while not surprised (I’m rarely surprised anymore but the incompetence of people), I was pretty appalled. I mean, the “combination” list, of foods you can eat that incorporate elements from many of the different food pyramid building blocks? Pizza, cheeseburgers, chili, spaghetti and meatballs…seriously, not at all the healthiest foods to be promoting to small children. And, as we well know, West Virginia is home to some of the highest (if not THE highest) numbers of obese people in the country. Yet, I find myself eating more healthily here than I have in most other places that I’ve lived. There’s fresh fruits and vegetables aplenty at every grocery store I’ve been to, farm stands all over the place, organic and locally conscious restaurants and movements. And, once again, education is key. When you have Jamie Oliver going into a West Virginia school and asking kids to identify what certain fruits and vegetables are and they have NO IDEA,we have a major problem. And how could this problem be tackled, possibly even solved? E-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n.

Again, thank you Michelle Obama for making this your cause. And thank you FoodCorps for working to educate our nations youth to form a lifelong commitment to healthy eating and lifestyle from a young age. But this country has a major problem with education and health in regards to nutrition especially. And it’s up to each one of us to work to fight this.

(Images courtesy of Next Nature, fascinating site, and Mother Jones, also fascinating; and my own personal cell phone photos)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2012 12:13 pm

    While I agree that income/obesity does have some correlation, I think poor food choices span all demographics (in America) because what it comes down to — more than cost or availability — is giving a $h!t. Yes, there is a lack of emphasis and knowledge about food values in certain communities. However, there are plenty of people whom, if budget were not an issue and they lived in between a Whole Foods and a farmers’ market, would still choose to drive a couple of miles to a fast food drive thru or get take out Chinese because that’s what they like to eat and they just aren’t particularly concerned about the impact of food on their health. There are also plenty of people who will carefully assess their finances and make an effort to spend their food budget money on the best they can afford, even if it means a little extra time and effort to go to the places where it’s available and then prepare it. People will always find the money for the things they want. Every person I know who buys into the “eating whole foods is expensive” myth and uses that as their excuse to stock the kitchen with Doritos and Pepsi finds the cash to shell out every month for 200 channels of cable TV, smartphones for their entire family and crappy dinners at chain restaurants every weekend. And I’m including both lower and upper income people in that statement; people I know who live in housing projects and people who live in $600,000 new construction. I liken it to the “I don’t have time to exercise” people who spend six hours zoned out on Facebook or watching “Storage Wars” every night. If you care about something, you’ll find a way to do it. What it comes down to is that it’s easier to hit speed dial and have a pizza and wings on your lap in 30 minutes or less than it is to actually think about nutrition.

  2. Sexy Curmudgeon permalink
    April 30, 2012 1:40 pm

    Norma is correct in theory, and it sounds like she has many personal anecdotes to back up her claim, but nationwide statistics can’t lie – it’s true, some people care more or less about eating “healthily” (whatever that means, judging from that beautiful “combination foods” poster), but statistically the lowest income groups are the most obese. I agree with Norma, however, that we should broaden the scope to incorporate the whole range of characteristics associated with these groups: for higher income people, there is a whole culture surrounded around health, exercise, diet, and body maintenance in which education serves as a key but only single component. Education is a great first step, but when obesity is considered the norm in an entire family or community, there are obviously huge, culturally ingrained hurdles that need to be overcome.

    • April 30, 2012 5:32 pm

      I totally agree; when obesity is accepted as the norm in a particular family, where is the one person who is going to break the mold and be the one to change that for the better? However, as the topic was about the much-hyped food desert excuse which is now being questioned with real statistics, that’s where I was going. I will tell you (anecdotally) that within walking distance of the housing projects in my town are a Super Stop & Shop that has a full prepared foods section (roast whole chicken, sandwiches, even made-to-order sushi), a Shaw’s supermarket that is comparable (sans sushi, but plenty of other prepared foods and a big organic department), a Walgreen’s with a large frozen foods section, and two convenience stores that sell a decent variety of fresh fruit. In walking distance of the upper middle class sprawling McMansion subdivision where i live is…nothing but other houses. The closest anything to the neighborhood is a CVS and that would involve a four-mile walk on a busy main road with no sidewalk or shoulder. So that knife cuts both ways. The pizza places deliver everywhere, you know what I mean? That said, there are plenty of fairly educated, gainfully employed people in my neighborhood for whom food budget is not an issue who simply don’t care (yet) about nutrition — for themselves or their kids — who also do not exercise (although I’d venture this week’s grocery bill that a majority of them have a dusty treadmill in the corner of the bedroom being used as a clothing rack). They think nothing of regularly dropping $50 on a Friday night dinner of delivery pizza, wings and soda but balk at $50 for a session with a personal trainer. And conversely, there are absolutely people on much more limited incomes who take the long term view into consideration and make the effort to buy the whole foods, cook at home, cut out or reduce luxury spending (cable TV, etc.) in order to invest that money in what they and their families eat. I don’t honestly have a solution to offer. As long as the government is in the pocket of Big Food and continues to subsidize and make $$$ from corn, soy, sugar, tobacco and other crap, those ingredients and the products they’re in (think of the soda lobby) will continue to comprise the bulk of the American diet, because advertising is powerful, our tastes have been conditioned/addicted to salty/fatty/sweet and people who make the effort to clean up their diets and work out every day are vilified as abnormal, obsessive, and even…curmudgeonly! 😉 I am accused on probably a weekly basis of having “no fun” in my life because I don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat junk and exercise every day…

  3. David Haas permalink
    April 30, 2012 6:28 pm

    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?

  4. May 1, 2012 6:21 pm

    Thank you both for your immensely insightful comments! I love when this blog sparks discussion. But we have to think about why obesity is an accepted norm in families, and I believe that family education is key. Schools are beginning to hold mandatory meetings for parents about issues such as bullying and sex, but nutrition and maintaining a healthy family are left out. And yes, simplicity is also an issue: it’s much easier to run out and get a pizza than cook a healthy meal, and when we live in a society where work is valued over health, that is not going to change.


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