My Opinion Monday (on Tuesday): Have You Seen A Food Desert Lately?
The topic of food deserts came up a couple of weeks ago when I was chatting with some friends. One of them had never heard the term before and couldn’t quite fathom the possibility of an area that did not contain a grocery store. Even when she thought of the urban areas in cities that she had visited, it seemed surprising that there was not quality food available nearby.
I was a bit condescending during the conversation and I said that she probably hadn’t been to the poor parts of urban areas and thus hadn’t witnessed the circumstance.
But my condescension has dropped away. I’ve been trying to come up with something to write about food deserts for this piece all weekend and when nothing substantial would come to me, I had to have a good look at the reason.
I am convinced that food deserts exist because I’ve read about them, heard podcasts about them and because I believe in the people who are trying to stomp them out. But it’s still pretty abstract in my mind. The reason is that I am, and always have been, privileged enough to not live near one.
Well, that may not be entirely true. I grew up miles and miles away from a grocery store. However we had a massive yard with a massive garden. More importantly, we and every household nearby had at least one car which was used to travel 20 minutes once a week to the nearest massive supermarket.
Nowadays, I still lead a very privileged life but I routinely drive through a relatively poor neighborhood. There as well, the signs of food desertdom are not overly apparent. It’s true that there are gas stations with convenience stores closer to the homes than there are grocery stores but the grocery stores are not that far away. They are definitely walkable (perhaps not with a week’s worth of groceries but with a couple of day’s worth it’s probably fine). The landscape therefore does not appear to lack a produce section for mile upon mile.
Conclusion: Even though I grew up far away from any grocery stores and even though I routinely drive through a poorer area of town with more convenience stores than grocery stores, I still have not witnessed anything like a food desert. I no longer feel condescension towards my friend who can’t imagine one existing anywhere. I find it hard to imagine too.
So here we have someone who really cares about the issues surrounding our nation’s health, who has heard the cry from above to begin combating the problems and who wants to help (in a small way) by writing about the issues and bringing them to people’s awareness, and even this person finds it all a bit abstract.
This person is, of course, me and I’m feeling sad and frustrated about it all today. If I can’t picture these deserts and talk about them concretely and passionately, than how can I imagine a nation of people believing in and taking on the problem?
Maybe we need a way to make the problem more visible. Maybe that’s why the work people like Michelle Obama are doing is so important. Or maybe visibility will happen all on its own if unemployment rates stay high and poverty rates rise. But that’s not exactly something we should hope for, is it?