Critiques and statistics about people living in low income communities often tend to focus too much on the usual subjects. Household incomes, ethnicity, educational levels and crime rates seem to always top the list. These are undoubtedly important factors to consider depending on what one seeks to learn or “prove” with such information. It seems that this information is often used to reinforce negative stereotypes or to justify unfair treatment and outright abuse of members of these communities. The negative psychological impact of being treated like a lab rat for purposes not always entirely altruistic is devastating. Once these statistics and data are compiled and reported the cycle starts all over again. What rarely seems to be made explicit in all of the research and data gathering is the impact of food deserts on low income areas.
Take a drive through any “poor” neighborhood and one thing will be glaringly apparent. The food choices, if they may even be called such, are absolutely abominable. First off you’ll notice the plethora of death valleys known as fast food places. The horrible food served at these places, and the accompanying diseases and heath problems they cause, have already been made well known. This is in no small part due to the brave individuals who have produced independent research, films and reports about the matter. But, one need only take a drive through these areas to experience the overwhelming reality of the situation. Where other neighborhoods have track housing these other areas have track food deserts. Liquor store, doughnut shop, burger, pizza or taco place and “convenience” store. Repeat.
These food deserts also have supermarkets. Many of these are “big brand” companies and well known. They are not even worth mentioning by name. But, I have walked into some of these places and the first thing I often notice is a horrible stench. Much of the food, particularly meats and produce, looks second hand. I once read how when food items are reaching their expiration date (or in some cases have expired) that the food is shifted to these stores as a last ditched effort to make a profit. Forget about the impact it has on the health of these communities…make the money. The things one experiences in these locations would never be accepted in more economically affluent neighborhoods. But, when you’re dealing with poor people who don’t have the economic muscle to do anything about this abuse it just continues to happen. Nor do they have any meaningful social empathy or sympathy from those outside of the community. If poor people get sick from food poisoning or worse…it’s not my problem.
If you have never heard of a food desert, now you have. Food deserts are places where good quality food is hard to find. It not only has to do with scarcity of this type of food but the economics behind it. Even where healthier choices might be made available in these deserts, it often is very expensive. I’ve seen products labeled organic that were cheaper to buy at Whole Foods than at some of these stores! So, if you’re family is financially strapped are you going to opt for the organic product when you can buy pounds of slop for a fraction of the price? No. Now one might say well that’s their fault and they are making a poor value judgement. Much easier to say that when quality food is abundant and you can afford it. If you know you can feed your entire family with a bucket of X product for a night and the other expensive, though nutritionally better, product would not even suffice as a snack…what would you do? You’re stuck between feeding your family something rather than nothing. It’s a vicious cycle.
There is an educational component to this as well. We like to assume that everyone has access to the internet. Or we think that everyone has access to nutritional knowledge. It’s simply not true. Attempts are being made to educate people in low income communities about healthier eating habits. But, what good does that do when 1) the food is not available locally to you and you use public transportation and/or 2) if it is available it’s priced way out of your range. It’s hard for many people to imagine that these real difficulties impact scores of individuals. When you can load up the kids into your SUV and head to a supermarket a mile or two away, going shopping is not as much of an ordeal. (though many still complain about it) But, think about taking your children on a bus across town and lugging your groceries around on a public bus (which often are unsanitary) all while trying to keep the kids from misbehaving. It’s a tough reality for those who face this each day.
I believe that if this food desert problem was eradicated that the performance in school and life would improve dramatically in low income communities. I also strongly believe that there would be a decrease in crime and violent behavior. When one lives under deplorable conditions, surrounded by violence and streets that look like a garbage truck has just exploded combined with being a food desert is it any wonder that all the negative statistics about these areas are so common. We all know the old saying “garbage in garbage out.” This is especially true of human beings. Feed them garbage and their bodies suffer physically and psychologically while society pays for it socially…
-Sensei Derek Fletcher