You’ve heard of deserts. You’ve heard of food (obviously). But have you heard of food deserts?
It’s a recent phenomenon brought to the nation’s attention by First Lady Michelle Obama, and it’s essentially areas throughout the country lacking quality food distributors. Cities without Whole Foods? (Gasp!) Yes, they do exist.
As part of her Let’s Move initiative, Mrs. Obama has worked to bring more healthful food to neighborhoods lacking supermarkets. And in order to make this happen, she reached out to major retailers, foundations, and small businesses alike. But whether or not progress has been made depends on how you measure success.
According to a recent article from NPR, various studies are showing that even though more grocery stores are popping up, they still aren’t the best quality. And furthermore, even consumers who aren’t used to high-end food markets with wide selections of food still have reasonably high standards for the produce they buy, as they should. So, it doesn’t matter if a woman who has a quality market two blocks from her home, or a woman who has limited access to a supermarket walks past a selection of bruised, mealy apples. The fact is, they’re still bruised mealy apples and neither woman is going to pick one up no matter what their previous exposure to quality produce was.
And why is this a problem? Well, practically speaking, those who only have access to low-quality food are at a huge disadvantage. But statistically speaking, people who have greater access to fruits and vegetables consume more fruits and vegetables. And if the First Lady’s aim was to get more people eating healthy foods, her aim is being missed.
In addition, it’s not just about having access to quality food. Environment is another important factor even among the lower-income population, according to one study published by Cambridge. In surveying 495 respondents from six low-income neighborhoods in Chicago, IL, researchers found that more positive perceptions of the shopping environment are associated with greater consumption of fruits and vegetables. In fact, “There was an increase of approximately twofold in the likelihood of consuming three or more fruits and vegetables daily per level of satisfaction ascribed to the shopping environment.”
Does this mean the friendly faces and pretty produce displays at grocery stores really do make a difference in how healthy I am? Maybe so.
So what’s the solution? Throw more money at the problem? Employ happier grocery store attendants? Convince people mealy produce is better than no produce? Who knows?
Shannon Zenk of University of Illinois at Chicago, an expert in how the environment affects health within Chicago neighborhoods, says there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all solution’ and that the community needs to get more involved when public health experts are trying to make these kinds of large-scale improvements.
Me? I suggest community gardens, but that’s probably just my inner hippie talking. It seems like a more logical, community-friendly solution. Plus, you could get kids involved and teach them about where food comes from instead of just pulling it out of a bag and putting it on their plate. Heck, you may even spawn some real-life farmers out of the deal.
Brilliant, I know. Will anyone listen? Probably not. But for the sake of veggies (and health), I’ll shout a little louder so my voice can be heard.