Food for Thought

Apropos of a discussion going on in another thread regarding economics and healthy eating, I want to take a moment to make a very important point that ought to be of concern to progressives: Health is a class issue. We’re all very understanding about the disparity in healthcare between the upper/middle and lower classes, but we seem not to be quite so keyed in to some fundamental challenges facing low income families when it comes to a disparity in nutrition and the availability of healthy foods.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that many inner city communities have no grocery stores. Period. We’ve likely all heard the term “white flight” that is associated with whites moving out of cities and into the suburbs, and during that time, most cities experienced a “supermarket flight,” too—a phenomenon that has been studied and/pr noted by sociologists, urban planners, politicians, and community leaders concerned about the lack of access to affordable, high-quality and healthy food for inner city residents. The problem is so pervasive that some states have proposed state-run grocery stores for inner city areas.

This special report from the Detroit News highlights some of the problems with the lack of grocery stores in the inner city.

Lack of Choice:

Underserved by supermarket chains that began divesting in sections of the Detroit area in the 1970s, poor people often find their bills inflated at small neighborhood stores. The high cost of groceries is one factor that keeps the poor impoverished.

Only eight supermarkets affiliated with major chains serve more than 900,000 people in the city of Detroit. The contrast with the suburbs is stark. At just one intersection, at Hall and Hayes roads in Macomb County, two Farmer Jack stores and a Meijer store occupy three of the four corners. Another grocery, a Kroger store, is less than a mile and a half away.
Transportation a Problem:

Like many of the urban poor, Morris’ ability to shop for food is limited by the long distances between supermarkets and her lack of an automobile. The 60-year-old mostly walks from her home in the Col. Hamtramck Housing development to buy her groceries at small neighborhood stores where prices are often comparatively high…

Walking to the closest supermarket, a Farmer Jack at Joseph Campau and Holbrook, is a three-mile round trip. Morris says she makes it there when she can.

“We do have a SMART bus that comes to the housing project once a week,” she said. “They’ll pick people up and take them up Joseph Campau to Farmer Jack. Once in a while, my son’s girlfriend takes me up there.
Higher Prices, Lower Quality:

But even at Farmer Jack, she encounters many products with higher prices than at the big, suburban stores. The News survey found that both ground beef and potatoes were 25 percent more expensive than at Meijer in Shelby Township, while the cheapest chicken drumsticks and thighs at Farmer Jack were more than 100 percent more expensive than the cheapest brand offered at Meijer…

A frequent complaint of grocery shoppers in poorer areas is that produce is of poor quality. There also was some evidence of that at the Farmer Jack on Joseph Campau, where much of the corn and all of the watermelon was far browner than the same produce at the two Farmer Jacks in Macomb County, on previous days…

The smaller stores closer to Morris’ home that stock groceries are generally even more expensive, and the inventory does not offer many good choices for someone on a limited food budget.

“It is difficult to shop around here,” Morris said. “And it’s even better here than in some other neighborhoods I know of.”
Availability and Access:

Kami Pothukuchi, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State, surveyed retail food establishments in Detroit last year. In 55 percent of all neighborhood stores in the Detroit area, Pothukuchi says, “alcohol, cigarettes and junk foods are widely available, while ingredients with which to prepare balanced, wholesome meals are very rarely available in any one store, let alone in sufficient variety.”
And even where there are supermarkets in predominantly minority communities, they are vastly different from their counterparts in white neighborhoods:

[T]rained community volunteers and academic researchers in the Los Angeles area studied 261 stores in specific areas of South Los Angeles, Inglewood and North Long Beach, whose populations are 47% black, with a median household income of $29,237.

They compared foods found in those stores with products in 69 stores in areas in West Los Angeles (between Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, but not including those communities) that are mostly white and have a median income of $45,917…

~ 38% of the stores in the black communities carried skim milk, compared with 80% of white neighborhoods.

~ 70% of the stores in the black neighborhoods had fresh fruits and vegetables, compared with 94% of the stores in the white communities.

~ There was less variety of produce, and it was of a poorer quality, in the black neighborhoods: 13 fruits and 21 vegetables in a typical store in those areas, compared with 26 fruits and 38 vegetables in the stores in the mostly white communities.

Community members reported "finding unappealing vegetables and fruits such as brown bananas" in the lower-income neighborhoods, says lead author David Sloane, an associate professor of policy, planning and development at USC.

There were marked differences in the types of stores in the communities.

"In West Los Angeles, they tend to be larger chain stores," Sloane says. "In South Los Angeles, they tend to be more mom-and-pop stores. ... They don't have a strong a relationship with distributors to get as great a variety of goods, and so the result is people have a fewer choices of healthy items."
Healthfulness shouldn’t be a class issue, but it is. It manifests in myriad ways—access to the doctors and other health services, the kinds of jobs that extend health benefits to their employees, the cost of preventative care and drugs, etc. But almost never in any health discussion, even those which address class disparities, do you see the very basic issue of healthy food addressed, and it’s a very serious problem.

Combine a dearth of local supermarkets with low car ownership in poor communities (something that became all too clear after Katrina), add in independent corner shops that have low purchasing power, and what you’ll find is a whole hell of a lot of people who are left with frozen dinners, boxed meals, and processed snacks as the staples of their diets.

For most of us, I imagine the very thought of a neighborhood without a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables is almost incomprehensible, but it’s a reality for far too many Americans. The question we need to be asking is not why everyone doesn’t make whatever we feel are the best food choices, but why they don’t even have the same choices we do.

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