“Are you going to do it?”
The early November morning saw the collective gaze of my students locked expectantly on me, seeking solidarity in the dim light of the hoop house, all oblivious to the fact they were a little damp and shivering slightly. Would I really pick a freshly grown spinach leaf from the dirt…and eat it? Just like that?
You bet I would.
Without hesitation I boldly reached over, deftly plucked a verdant leafy green, barely inspected it for dirt, and did something I know I likely never would have done at their age: I ate spinach, the bane of every young palate, directly from the soil.
“Mmmm,” I looked up, addressing them all, “that was good.”
It was all the prompting they needed. In that simple yet huge moment, my students, my children of the Baltimore city streets, reached down, picked a leaf, and, with varying levels of apprehension and adventure, consumed the freshest food of their adolescent lives.
To this day I’m proud of them for taking on the dare, for following through with the unconventional sampling of fresh spinach at a farm. But with that memory, a disheartening mix of other emotions are present as well, feelings of sadness, frustration and anger.
The urban farm my students and I were visiting was one of the few that existed in the city and was located right on school grounds. I was grateful they were in such close proximity to a fresh food source, but I couldn’t help ruminating over the fact that many of them would go back home to food deserts, urban areas that were arid wastelands in the sense that they were in total lack of any kind of fresh agriculture whatsoever.
Grocery stores are an absent luxury in the communities where most of these children live. It is not at all atypical for the closest market to be several miles away. For the many households relying on public transportation, what would be a simple trip to the grocery store for most is in truth a bus commute with multiple transfers.
Meanwhile, the market franchises in suburban locales spread like wildfire. I remember a time the suburb I was raised in experienced a rash of seemingly never-ending supermarket-chain openings, and I recall that even at that young age I felt exasperated with their redundancy. Now, after several years of working closely with the impoverished youth of inner-cities, I feel more than exasperation towards the despairing unbalance of fresh food distribution. I feel resentment, indignation and am deeply troubled.
Are residents of food deserts starving to death? No, not really. Could things be worse? Sure, by far. But could things also be better? Yes, absolutely.
These food-desert-residents are not necessarily hungry, but they are far from well-fed. Over-worked and under-paid, with limited means of transportation, these citizens are faced with a daunting existence, and a paucity of choice—and power—in their lives.
In human society, one’s economic status can have a direct influence on the choices one makes regarding which foods are purchased and thereby consumed. It’s simple math—with limited funds come limited options. This is not to say, however, that if given the economic means, people from a low-income bracket would then suddenly maintain an ever-vigilant diet of fresh, preservative-free meals.
It is noted that many people of a high-income bracket also make unhealthy dietary decisions daily, to include myself.
Too easily do we take for granted all that is available to us and make conscious decisions to eat poorly when we opt for fried food over fresh food. It is almost always because we made the autonomous choice to do so, ignorant or uncaring to the plethora of alternatives available to us, and oblivious to the damage we are doing to our bodies. As such, education plays a vital role in this issue as well.
A vicious cycle is set in place that is in dire need of being broken. The lives of my students, their families and their friends are tightly intertwined with an insufficient and sub-standard means of living, and inevitably are subject to further suffering.
Not only is their health negatively impacted (high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes to name a few), but also their overall quality of life. I myself have witnessed the chain-reaction that occurs when a person’s perception of society is at a cross-roads with their nutritional options.
Our food industry delivers the cold message, “This is the best you can hope for. This is all you are worth. Your well-being is not a concern.” Strong stuff.
When someone experiences this message in all aspects of life—considering the lack of affordable housing in cities, the lack of quality in urban educational systems, the lack of well-paying job opportunities—they might just start to believe it.
If society is constantly reinforcing this dirge of a message that it has no interest in investing in them, how will they find the motivation to invest back into society and, ultimately, themselves? Countless stories support the most heartbreaking of statistics: boys behind bars rather than school desks, girls giving birth to premature infants rather than realizing dreams, absent parents clocking in over-time at their minimum-wage job rather than spending time with their family; unjustified deaths of loved ones; the relentless monsters of unabated addictions.
And yet, through all these crises, these children are forced to survive on a constant diet of fast, fried and fake food.
They eat bags of chips from the gas station for breakfast, congealed additives from the cafeteria at lunch, and a heaping plate of preservatives for dinner at home. These “meals” are supposed to nourish people—children—as they face the myriad of challenges that come with existing in Low-Income America. Instead, these meals are destroying them from the inside out.
The eradication of food deserts will not resolve the slew of social concerns our communities are inflicted with across the Nation.
However, I would hope that it would be difficult for anyone to refute the claim that the consumption of wholesome, healthy food will greatly improve, not just a person’s body, but also their heart, mind and spirit. Dare I say, you are what you eat.
Compared to the complexities of so many other social injustices that are achingly present today, the dream of making fresh food available to all people of every class should not seem like an insurmountable task.
It should seem attainable—it should seem reasonable—and not to mention, just plain decent.
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Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier/Ed: Bryonie Wise