I grew up in northwest Indiana, right smack dab between south Chicago and Gary, Indiana, which at the time claimed the prestigious title of "Murder Capital of the U.S." Needless to say, it was a rough area, but it's all I knew at the time. I didn't realize that not everyone in the world locked their doors at night or put their wallets in their front pocket. I also never really thought about the lack of healthy food options around me. It seemed like the least of my worries. Ironically, my father always worked in grocery stores, and he had to travel pretty far to get to work every day.
I imagine many people don't really think about the placement of grocery stores and health food stores in relation to the neighborhood's economy. I'm not really into deeper conspiracy theories, so I won't assume that the lack of healthy food options in low income areas is meant to be overly malicious, but I imagine that it's mostly based on ignorance or financial statistics. There's a perception that lower income familes wouldn't be economically viable for the "more expensive" fresh fruits and vegetables found in a grocery store, so this leaves only one option for these areas: convenience stores and fast food restaurants. But the truth is, processed foods are only cheaper in the short-term. When you buy a candy bar for lunch at the corner gas station, your hunger is satisfied temporarily, but the impact on your body results in much more expensive health problems later on.
When affordable, healthy food isn't an option to a certain area (both urban and rural), these are what's known as food deserts. According to the Department of Agriculture, almost 10 percent of the U.S. population lives in a food desert. But this problem is gaining awareness in recent years, and I'm always happy to see new farmers markets or grocery stores with fresh produce open up where none dared operate before.
One innovation in the local fight against food deserts is the Chattanooga Mobile Market. This "farmers market on wheels" has specified stops it makes throughout low-access districts to bring affordable healthy food to those who don't want to settle for the unhealthy processed foods they have available on every corner.
"I believe one thing people need to keep in mind if they want to get involved is that this is a long-term and multi-faceted approach to addressing the problem," says Sumner Gray, manager of the Chattanooga Mobile Market. "There are no quick and easy fixes as we are not only dealing with access to food but a mindset of what we are putting into our bodies. Someone may complain about the cost of a bottle of juice but have no problems buying a Monster Energy Drink from the gas store."
The Chattanooga Area Food Bank also does much more to provide healthy food to our community than many might realize. The CAFB not only distributes canned goods, but they also run a large garden on the property just off Amnicola to help provide fresh produce for the area's hungry, including low-income, low-access, and the elderly. This garden also acts as a way for anyone in the community to come in and learn how to grow food themselves.
On a national level, First Lady Michelle Obama has been actively fighting against food deserts with her "Let's Move" campaign, encouraging large food retailers to provide healthier food options to low-income zones. This initiative has not only created tens of thousands of new jobs, but it also aims to wipe out the spread of childhood obesity.
So how can you help? Volunteering your time at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank or the Mobile Market is a good first step, but researching and spreading the word is just as important. As I mentioned in the opening of this article, many residents of these communities have more important things to worry about than how fresh a tomato is. But long-term health goals should become a priority not only for themselves but for future generations. No matter where you live or what your access is to fresh food, there's something you can do to help eliminate healthy food access problems.
Shawn Schuster is a writer/editor for AOL and sustainable farmer in Alabama. He can be reached on Twitter or byemail. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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