A few months ago, I attended a talk given by a woman who teaches healthy eating to school children. It was cool to hear some new ideas, as well as reinforcement of the lessons I’ve been trying to teach my girls. I took a lot away that day, but one thing in particular seems to keep bouncing around my head.
She said that she does a lot of work in inner city schools, many of which are in food deserts. A food desert is a term gaining some recognition lately as it pertains to the obesity epidemic in our country. A food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthful, affordable food is difficult to obtain. I was shocked to find a food desert a short drive from my home via this locator. The thing that I cannot seem to shake is that she said she had a little girl, I believe she was in third grade, approach her after her presentation. Like many of the children, she expressed gratitude to the woman for showing them some healthy, fun foods. Just before she turned away, she said, “Before today, I had never seen an orange in person, and I never thought I’d get to have one, so it was a great day!” Keep in mind, this was not in some refugee camp in an unindustrialized country. This was in the greater CHICAGO area. Sadder still, she said she gets those comments all the time.
Not too long ago, Chicago Magazine had an article detailing this problem. Here is an excerpt:
What does it mean for a community to lack access to adequate fresh food? Several things—and none of them good. Day to day, residents must leave their neighborhoods for basics such as raw meat and fresh vegetables. Edith Howard, whose daughter drives her to the store, is better off than many. An estimated 64,000 households in food deserts don’t have cars, so a weekly shopping trip can require cobbling together a multibus route. If the hassle of schlepping grocery bags on the CTA sounds tiring—especially given that 109,000 food desert residents are single mothers—that’s because it is. Many simply opt out, ducking into a fast-food outlet or a convenience store instead, where the inventory often runs more toward potato chips and liquor than spinach and oranges, and where a banana that would cost 29 cents at Dominick’s goes for around 70 cents, if it’s even available.
“Diet has a direct link to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases, and you can’t choose a healthy diet if you don’t have access to it,” Gallagher says. “Many in the food desert who suffer are children who already have diabetes but who have yet to be diagnosed and treated.”
Although other factors such as poor health care and stress are likely contributors, Gallagher found that, among those living in neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food, ten out of every 1,000 people die from cancer, as opposed to fewer than seven per 1,000 in neighborhoods with the best food availability. The comparison is even bleaker when it comes to deaths from cardiovascular disease: 11 per 1,000 in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, compared with fewer than six per 1,000 among the best off. And because nearly one-third of Chicago’s food-desert residents are children, these latent repercussions have years to germinate.
I bring this to your attention because maybe like me, you grew up guilted by the idea of children in Africa starving because you did not finish your pot roast. Perhaps if we take the time to educate our kids on our great fortune living in an area where healthy foods are plentiful, they can approach their meals with a fresh sense of gratitude. Maybe they won’t be able to remember the first time they saw an orange in person, but maybe they can meet a new “Fruit-lebrity” ( patent pending ) at your nearest market!