We know what the problem is: food deserts and tough conversations

4 years ago
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So I found this article, and the title gave me pause:  “Food Deserts aren’t the problem”.  http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2014/02/food_deserts_and_fresh_food_access_aren_t_the_problem_poverty_not_obesity.single.html

Food deserts are not a problem?  “Getting fresh fruits and vegetables into poor neighborhoods doesn’t make poor people healthier”?  Studies, you say?  Ok, let’s hang on a minute.

I get what Gilligan is saying.  Take an neighborhood, urban or rural, that has limited or no access to fresh foods and the means with which to procure, prepare, and store them, and you can shove all the carrots and beans you want at the people living there and it won’t make a difference in health problems.  Because markets and grocery stores (wonderful as they are) are one head off a hydra.

Unfortunately, more fresh food closer to home likely does nothing for folks at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Obesity levels don’t drop when low-income city neighborhoods have or get grocery stores. 

I think we’d do better to say “food deserts are one of many interlinked problems” when it comes to public health and the millions of Americans living near or below the poverty line.  With every push to get fresh vegetables and fruits onto American plates, we have to have riders:

1)      Housing access:  First of all, do people have kitchens?  What shape are they in?  Are they equipped with safe appliances? 


2)      Transit investment: Want people to shop fresh?  Shopping fresh requires shopping weekly.  The people in a given neighborhood, are they doing bulk shopping, shopping once a month, or tiding themselves over from the corner store?   How do they get from point A to B with their groceries?  Are the local stores really (really) giving them good selection, or do they have to schlep to parts unknown?  And bear in mind the cost of that. 


A trip to Wegman’s for me is “free” in that I have more than enough money to keep my tank full and my car in good condition to let me go shopping biweekly and not have that take a bite from my food budget.  If I was doing this by train or bus, how would the cost of a pass or tickets, the possibility of missed connections (cost of time) affect how much money I have left over to buy the food when I get there?


3)      Minimum wage increase:  How can you afford the pots, pans, slow cookers, spices, energy uses, and more that go into producing and storing healthy food if you can barely get by?  And don’t tell me “buy secondhand” – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but sometimes that’s not even an option.  Poverty is not a moral failing or a choice – it is a lack of money.  Give people more money and stand back.  The allostatic load Gilligan mentions will start to fall, and people will be able and willing to shop, prep, and cook.  In fact, a lot of neat things would happen.

In fact, I’d like to add more considerations: environmentalists need to get on this. If we expect people to eat locally, to garden, to farm – what shape is their land in?  What’s in the water?  Is it safe to eat the food grown in a particular area?  And what of areas where there’s no land?  A great project would be urban hydroponic farms (or suburban/rural if you’re in a place where the land has been damaged by chemical spills – still need to get clean water from somewhere, however)

Gilligan doesn’t push her point far enough.  She stops short, and that’s what worries me, because she stops at the same point most conversations about food deserts stop: right before addressing the systemic issues that keep people from eating better.

What worries me with saying food deserts aren’t the problem is that it begs the excuse, “well, we don’t know why *those* people are eating junk, they’re going to do it anyway, so why bother?”  This invites us to abdicate responsibility towards the people who need it the most.  A simple single solution to a problem born of systemic injustice and generations of neglect isn’t going to work, at least not in the way we’ve anticipated.

We know what the problem is – we’ve known for generations.  But it’s not comfortable or polite to talk about it on large platforms.  The internet is full of people telling their stories of living at the poverty line.  Activists and historians have documented their words.  We know what the problem is, and it only begins at food. 




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