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May 15, 2011

Food Friendly May: Access Matters

Filed under: Food — Twistie @ 11:52 am

You know what? Everyone wants to talk about fat. Everyone wants to talk about how people overindulge in food. Let’s take a moment to talk about one of the dirtiest little secrets in America: nearly one quarter of all children in this country go to bed hungry most nights.

Think about that for a moment. One in four.

And I’m not talking about eating disorders here, though they are important to talk about. No, I’m talking about poverty. I’m talking about lack of access to food. I’m talking food deserts, here, people.

What is a food desert? I’m glad you asked! The USDA released a map last week that explains and illustrates just this thing.

How does the USDA define a food desert? In simplest terms (you can get more details here) it’s an area where at least 500 people and/or 33% of the people in a given area have to travel more than one mile to reach a supermarket or large grocery store (the range is expanded to ten miles in rural settings).

Just one little mile? you may scoff. But think about it. If you don’t have a car, then that mile (one way) gets a little longer. Coming back with as many groceries as you can carry in your arms on foot or on public transportation gets not only longer and harder, but more futile. That ten pound sack of flour may be on sale at the market a mile away, but if you buy it, that means you can’t carry as many beans or oranges or hamburger patties. You may not be able to carry that ten pound sack for a mile, anyway.

And no grocery store doesn’t mean there’s no food in a food desert. It just means there’s less of it at much higher prices, and often of significantly lower quality.

There are liquor stores and Quickie Marts and dollar stores and fast food outlets and the occasional tiny mom and pop grocery that can’t compete against large chains like Whole Foods, Safeway, and the like in their pricing. Sure, you can go to any of those places (except for Mickey D’s) and get a quart of milk for your kids… at nearly twice the price. Packages are often tiny since space is at a premium, so buying in bulk from down the block isn’t even possible. As for variety? Don’t make me laugh.

And then we have San Antonio. If you’ve been following the Fatosphere over the past few days, chances are you’ve heard about this. The USDA is giving two million dollars to fund a program in San Antonio, TX to monitor what elementary school kids eat in the cafeteria at lunch.

High tech imaging cameras will be used to document what the children “pile onto their trays” (yes, that’s the wording in the article that started the fuss), and then what they leave uneaten.

If the purpose of this exercise were to take an anonymous look at what foods are and are not being eaten with a view to making school lunches more appealing to children or reduce waste, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I don’t want money wasted on foods children won’t eat, and I do want kids well fed.

But the purpose here is not to improve the program to serve children better. Oh no, it’s not. It’s monitoring each individual child using bar codes. Oh, and the results will be shared with parents in hopes that the parents will then change their home eating habits.

Okay, for one moment, let’s put aside the invasiveness of this program, the serious potential to build resentment and ultimately bizarre and perverse rebellions on the part of small children. Let’s even ignore the fact that even though this is a program parents must opt into, some 90% of parents signed the permission slips (Baa baa!).

The school chosen to be the guinea pig here is an area of serious poverty. The other campuses that will soon join the program are also in poverty-stricken areas.

Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and students at risk for diabetes are higher.

You know what else is higher in these areas? The number of children who participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs and free breakfast programs because otherwise they have little to no access to regular meals.

And then we’re going to make them feel self-conscious about wanting a freaking French fry.

There are no words.


  1. This is sad and true. It is easy for those who have to scoff at the have nots. Until you have had to figure out how to get too and from a market without a car, don’t tell me that a mile isn’t that far to walk with a bag of groceries. My husband and I live in a major metropolitan area, we gave up having a car because we realized we could walk everywhere we needed to be and taxis/ public transport are relatively easy to catch. We have the luxury of living a few blocks from a great market and we can afford to have our groceries delivered. It hasn’t always been this way- there was a time in my life when I had no car because of economic issues. I was single, with no kids, and managed because it was just me and I didn’t mind going to the store all the time and public transport was available. I cannot imagine having to spend the kind of time and energy it took for me to feed me and triple that to feed a family.
    City planners need to wake up and insist that access to good food is as easy as access to fast food.

    I can’t even fathom what lead the people in charge of the San Antonio school to make that decision- think of how much healthy food could be bought for $2 million.
    It’s an evolutionary fact that people who are hungry intuitively reach for the most calorically dense food, and that they will take more than what is “healthy” because a body will store the excess, in case the next meal is not coming for a while. Making poor kids feel bad is just another form of bullying. We need to feed them.

    Comment by Kimks — May 15, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  2. Here is a local news story from San Antonio, Texas about the food desert issue in San Antonio. The comments are really eye-opening.
    In our area, a section of the city lost their supermarket a long time ago and community organizers have been trying for years to get a grocery store there, with no luck. Eventually, they had better luck getting land in the area, after a horrific floor and after some houses got torn down because of drugs, for local people to be able to start their own gardens and then start their own farmers market.

    Comment by Toby Wollin — May 15, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  3. I read these things and constantly think my country has lost its ever-loving mind. We now vilify food and make the desire for it bad. The desire for food… we’ve made it bad.

    I am exhausted by the stupid.

    Comment by mel — May 15, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

  4. I live in a food desert in No. Philly. We might, possibly, maybe get a Bottom Dollar store on a lot a block north of me. This has been a neighborhood fight for the 8 years I’ve lived here. Developers do want to come in, but the corruption, venality and plain stupidity of the elected officials that “represent” this neighborhood and run our city have made that next to impossible. I’m not quite sure what happened, but it looks like a breakthrough just may have occurred in the last month or so. In the meantime, the same elected officials are bombarding us with Michelle Obama’s grandiose plans to reduce childhood obesity. It’s beyond ridiculous and stupid. I’d say it’s bordering on the criminal.

    Comment by BeckyJ — May 15, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  5. I had never before now heard of the concept of food deserts. Now I know that I grew up in one (Minneapolis suburbs) and I currently live in one (small town Central Florida). And strangely, the lowest-income neighborhood I ever lived in (Jackson, MS) wasn’t in one… technically. I could get to a grocery store in less than a mile if I walked alongside a busy street and crossed under the freeway in a moderate-crime area. I’ve always been blessed to have access to a car but I appreciate learning about this for the sake of those who aren’t as blessed. Now I’m trying to think of what can be done in situations like these…

    Comment by KESW — May 15, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  6. I used to live in one of those San Antonio school districts. I’m so frustrated with this horrid crap, and so saddened that kids will be hurt by it.

    Comment by ZaftigWendy — May 16, 2011 @ 2:28 am

  7. Some of the kids in the town I grew up in didn’t have a lot of money. In high school, there were plenty of boys who had 3 servings of mashed potatoes with gravy and 3 cartons of chocolate milk for lunch. They got calories and protein for little money. They weren’t fat–they didn’t have bucks. This filming of kids in schools–do we know what they can afford? As to the neighborhoods where people are not within a mile of a grocery store–there are plenty of suburbs without public transportation where this is the case. Imagine walking along roads with no sidewalk, maybe with a couple of little kids, in bad weather, with a shopping care…This country is sick.

    Comment by Talbot — May 16, 2011 @ 10:38 am

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