Does subsidizing grocery stores for Food Deserts work? The availability of fresh food depends a whole lot on where you live. What if you live in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood? Your neighborhood grocery store moonlights as a liquor store with nary a vegetable in sight? You don’t have a car, and can’t (obviously) carry more than a couple bags on a bus to get home from a store three neighborhoods over. Do you have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and nutritious food?
What if you can’t risk your very small grocery budget on produce that spoils much more quickly than prepackaged food? Or risk it on kids who won’t eat the vegetables you buy anyway? What then? Who can blame you for not eating healthier?
I’ve never been poor. There was that time after my divorce with a 2 and a 5 year old where I considered myself poor, but I wasn’t. I never wanted for food. In the United States, over 15 percent of Americans live in poverty. As a single parent with two children, you are considered poor if your annual income is $21,720 a year, or less. I was making nearly four times that back when I got divorced and was a business executive working in Los Angeles. I can tell you that I struggled to make ends meet. And I’m frugal! But L.A. is an expensive city to live in and after rent, utilities, car payment and child care, there were many weeks when I put the groceries on a credit card. At least I had a credit card.
Compounding the cost challenge, many people don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy and nutritious food. These areas, usually lower income urban or rural areas, are called Food Deserts. This is defined as a geographic area where affordable and healthy food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile.
British politicians introduced the idea of Food Deserts in the 1990s, adopting the term after a few preliminary studies suggested a link might exist between distance to a grocery store and the diets of poor people. The concept had caught on in the U.S. by 2004, when Pennsylvania passed a Fresh Food Financing Initiative. It offered grants and loans to supermarkets willing to open in distressed neighborhoods and helped smaller stores expand their supplies of fresh food. Twenty-two states now have some version of fresh-food financing and there are countless local and nonprofit programs, including cooking and nutrition classes designed to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the lives of poor people.
But recent research has shown that this approach has not helped. The alarming obesity rates among low income individuals, families and children hasn’t budged in the Food Deserts where grocery stores have opened. Many studies have shown no significant impact between the food environment and diet. The Fresh Food Financing programs have pretty much failed.
Comments on an article in a Slate Magazine article about these findings are so typical. You have the progressives chiming in about the stress of poverty being the factor most affecting health of poor people. They argue for increasing the minimum wage and expanding food stamp programs. The conservatives counter that poor people should, “just get a job,” and it is more about their choices to eat junk food over healthy food rather than the availability of fruit and vegetables. Mostly they complained about giving out food stamps at all.
One reader commented: “You can lead a poor, obese, diabetic to broccoli but you can’t make him eat it.” Well, that’s true, isn’t it?
I think all these things are true. Poverty is stressful in and of itself. I discovered that in my quasi-poverty-stricken phase of life. We should increase the minimum wage. People should have jobs. Food stamps do help and should be increased. And yes, it is probably more about choices than anything else. So to me, the question we should focus on is:
How do we get poor, overweight people to choose to eat vegetables?
In a Psychology Today article, Edward Abramson, Ph.D. explains, “Some sour or bitter substances are poisonous or inedible but very few sweet tasting things are. Hundreds of thousands of years ago our prehistoric ancestors who ate sour or bitter things were more likely to perish; those who ate only sweet things were more likely to survive. Liking sweet tastes was a survival mechanism that has been passed down to us.“ So it is in our genes! How do we overcome this? There are a lot of creative things that can be done such as repetition, starting with sweeter vegetables, and sprinkling grated cheese or other toppings on them. (I happen to think less is more when it comes to preparing vegetable dishes.)
From my experience, healthy eating habits should start in preschool and elementary school. Not that older kids and adults can’t learn to eat healthier, but it’s just a lot harder. I am the CEO of a company that sells and donates hands-on gardening programs to preschools across the country. What we have found in our experience with thousands of children is: teaching a child it is healthy to eat vegetables does not mean they will eat them. Even bringing in a celebrity chef to cook the tastiest vegetable dish imaginable would not encourage kids to eat vegetables (as a parent to 4, I can vouch for that). However, when children grow their own vegetables, almost 100% of the participants will eat them. We have proven this over and over.
However, it is difficult for us to get schools — that are always overworked, under budgeted and teaching to standardized tests — to even schedule a meeting with us. I look at this as part of the culture of our country to focus on a problem after it has happened instead of focusing on measures to prevent it from happening.
Yes, the school garden approach might take a generation before the positive effects would be realized, but we’ve got to start somewhere. I think subsidizing school gardens and more importantly inserting that into curriculums (so the teachers can take the time to do it), would be money better spent than giving subsidies to open grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. Because ultimately, what good is a grocery store selling fresh vegetables if kids aren’t willing to eat those vegetables? Or if grownups never developed a taste for them? Let’s start with getting young children to develop a taste for eating healthier — then — subsidize the grocery stores to sell healthy food.
Although well-intentioned, I believe that the United States government’s idea of subsidizing grocery stores is a matter of putting the cart before the horse.
In order to get schools and school districts behind school gardening programs, the parents have to put pressure on them. Should enough parents get together and pressure their school district, change will happen. One of my favorite books in recent years is called Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. In it they talk about how just a couple small steps can lead to lasting and meaningful change. I think people look at a seemingly intractable problem like obesity and think they need to enact major policy changes that are almost impossible to achieve. Instead, I ask, why not mandate school gardening for young children as a first step? In my opinion, it should be as important as learning to read and write.
For readers that are passionate on this subject, please visit my website: CynthiaWylie.com. Join our community on Facebook, Bloomers Island, to engage with us. I have written a five-book series, Bloomers Island about gardening with kids published by Rodale Kids, an imprint of Penguin Random House. See you in the garden!