Are we stranded in a food desert?
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While approaching a stoplight in her car one day, Martha Davis-Kipcak noticed an interesting bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of her. She still remembers the 12-word phrase because it seemed so representative of the system she fights every day.
“If you are what you eat, you are fast, cheap and easy.”
The provocative slogan illustrates the gradual but alarming change in how this country eats. While meals cooked in the home and eaten around a table with family were once an everyday occurrence in most households, today many families rely on what is convenient. Convenient food means no time wasted behind a stove. It means gas stations and drive-throughs and effort spent only on time behind a steering wheel or in line for the next available cashier.
Americans are settling for their meals and tipping the scales because of it. According to the fifth annual “F as in Fat” report, published in 2011 by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), adult obesity rates have increased in 16 states in the past year, and 12 states report at least a 30 percent obesity rate, a number exceeded by only one state four years ago. Though Wisconsin straddles the line as the nation’s 25th most obese state at 27.4 percent, the number has increased by 67 percent over the last 15 years. In total, over two-thirds of American adults and nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese.
That’s something Davis-Kipcak seeks to change.
“We are getting lazy as a society,” said Davis-Kipcak, food program manager for the Center for Resilient Cities. The Center is a Milwaukee nonprofit dedicated to bringing public and private resources together to help underserved communities thrive.
“There is a lack of literacy surrounding how we feed ourselves,” she said.
The findings from the TFAH report also reveal that minorities in the U.S. as well as individuals from low-income areas are hit hardest by this change in dietary practices and are considerably more likely to have diabetes or heart disease. Those with a college or technical college degree are much less likely to be obese than high-school dropouts.
These numbers were brought to the attention of the U.S. government, which commissioned the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to assess the situation as part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. The one-year study focused on access to healthful, affordable food and explored the concept of a “food desert.” The USDA defines a food desert as any census district where at least 20 percent live below the poverty threshold and 33 percent live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or large grocery store (ten miles in rural areas).
Under this definition, the study found that 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert, and 82 percent of food deserts are in low-income urban areas. In these limited-access areas, many consumers tend to shop at smaller convenience stores that cannot provide food for a healthful diet and have higher prices, on average, than similar goods at a large grocery store.
Though she does not like the term “food desert” and would rather see a phrase that stresses the assets of the people who live there, Davis-Kipcak recognizes the effects of the health system on the impoverished and minorities.
“Poverty is a big, hairy monster,” she said. “It’s complicated and really played out in health in a big way.”
The conventional solution to the problem of accessing healthful foods seems simple to many activists: make it more readily available, especially in low-income areas. First Lady Michelle Obama, one of many such advocates, aims to reduce childhood obesity rates to just five percent by 2030 through her “Let’s Move!” campaign. She convinced food supercenters Walmart, SuperValu and Walgreens to open or expand 1,500 stores in recognized food deserts across the nation.
“If a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child’s lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn’t have to take three city buses, or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible,” Obama said at a press conference.
The solution, however, may not be so simple. While Obama states that people who live in communities with greater access to supermarkets eat more fruits and vegetables and have lower rates of obesity, more recent studies show this is not always the case.
For example, the aforementioned USDA study found that “easy access to all food, rather than a lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.” This finding leads to the notion of a “food swamp,” where healthful foods might be available, but junk food is everywhere.
There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States, and fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009, according to a September New York Times report. What is more alerting is that only 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, of those 23.5 million people living in areas deemed food deserts are without access to vehicles. So, most of these people have access to supermarkets — but many choose to shop elsewhere.
Like the bumper sticker says, fast-food is faster and easier. But it’s not guaranteed to be cheaper.
The New York Times report shows that an average meal for four from McDonald’s costs $27.89, while a home-cooked meal for four ,consisting of chicken, potatoes and salad, averages $13.78, a 51 percent savings.
Some may argue that fast food gives consumers more bang for their buck in terms of calories, but that’s not necessarily true either. The home-cooked meal just described contains 4 percent more calories and 191 percent more protein.
If the majority of Americans can access healthful, affordable food that is generally cheaper than fast-food, why do we choose the junk?
Could it be the art of cooking is long gone and Americans no longer possess the culinary capacity? Maybe we should blame the hour and a half Americans spend watching television each day?
Perhaps, as one study suggests, the fast-food industry has merely turned Americans into food junkies.
A 2009 Scripps Research Institute study found that binging on high-calorie, high-fat foods alters the brain’s chemical makeup, making it more difficult to trigger the release of dopamine. This means fast-food addicts need more and more to feel satisfied — similar to users of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
“The physiological evolution is very scary,” Davis-Kipcak said. “It requires a lot of consciousness on our part, and it requires each of us to raise the bar … not only to expect it but demand it.”
One suggestion to ending the food crisis involves using zoning laws to restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods. Los Angeles experimented with this in 2008 and successfully implemented a one-year moratorium on building new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square mile area in South L.A.
The USDA cautions, however, that there is no silver bullet to fix the problem. What works in one area may fail in another. When high-development costs are the barrier to healthful food, subsidy programs or restructured zoning policies may help. But in other areas the problem may be lack of demand for healthful food due to inadequate consumer knowledge, in which a public health campaign may help.
The area surrounding the Marquette campus, and especially directly west of campus, has long been considered a food desert by several sources, including the USDA. Some students seem immune to the lack of supermarkets in the area since most can either eat at a dining hall or have access to transportation to large grocery stores like Pick ‘n Save. But a sizeable contingent of the student body is unhappy with the options.
Kim Campbell, a senior in the College of Business Administration and member of MU Students for an Environmentally Active Campus (SEAC), says there are too many steps for students to take in order to make healthful choices on campus. She believes Sodexo should be a main player in making campus healthier.
“We’re very happy with the advancements on campus, but we need to see quicker growth,” Campbell said.
Kevin Gilligan, general manager for Sodexo at Marquette, pointed out several improvements made in the dining halls over the last couple years. Some of these include updating the Sodexo website to include nutritional information, integrating milk, fruits and veggies for combo meals, adding a vegetarian/vegan station to each dining hall, integrating more whole wheat products, and completely revamping the Straz Hall menu. He also mentioned the major success of two of the three planned fall farmers’ markets on campus this year.
Gilligan said they are always looking for ways to improve their offerings and educate students, but they cannot force students to improve choices.
“We can make sure the tools are available to them to make an educated decision on what they eat,” he said in an email.
Julius Niyonsaba, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences and transfer student from Holy Cross College, believes Marquette could learn a lot in terms of healthy options. While at Holy Cross, Niyonsaba was also a part-time student at the University of Notre Dame, which has only two campus dining halls. He believes this concentrated system works better and that Marquette overextends itself with too many locations.
“We have a long way to go with regard to the dining at Marquette,“ he said. “It should start with reconsidering who we hire to run our food system.”
Davis-Kipcak, who is also part of the Milwaukee Food Council, which works with local food advocates like Growing Power and Hunger Task Force, encouraged students to use the contained university environment of learning and inquiry to inspire change.
“Vote with your fork,” she urged. “Each of us is a decision maker every single day.”