A Visit to a Food Desert. ~ Kimberly Lo

Via Kimberly Lo
on Apr 3, 2013
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Maitland St, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Why We’re Losing the Battle of the Bulge.

I headed down to North Carolina this past weekend to spend some time with one of my oldest and dearest friends.

Even though I grew up there and consider myself a Carolina girl, this was only my second visit in the past 12 years. In many ways, things were exactly as I remembered them. One new change I noticed was the size of many people. Most of them were obese. Not overweight, not hefty, but clinically obese.

One night, as my friend was ordering dinner from a pizza chain, I asked if there were any farmers’ markets or Whole Foods in the area. She replied that there was neither, and that the nearest Whole Foods was an hour away in Charlotte. She remarked at the irony of the situation: here we were in rural western NC surrounded by land that for centuries had been used primarily for raising food, and there was no local food to be found. What could be found as far as the eye could see were fast food chains and take away places offering deals to feed a family of four for well under $20 and unlimited soda refills.

Yes, I was back home in the land of the deep South and deep fried—and the physiques of the people reflected that.

It’s not a secret that there is an obesity epidemic in the U.S. It seems that not a week goes by that a major news outlet does not carry a story about it. It’s become a mantra that Americans in general need to eat less, exercise more, and make healthy food choices, but how does one accomplish the last one when the privilege to make this choice doesn’t exist?

Eating well in this country has increasingly become a class issue. As comedian/social pundit Bill Maher claimed in a recent blog post, there is a sort of “food racism.” He notes that “from a nutritional standpoint the poor and the rich weren’t that far apart. Everybody got their cows and their chickens from the same farms. But then came the rise of factory farming, and chemical agriculture”…

“For a few decades, this was seen as “progress,” and even rich people bought this crap. But slowly an entire alternative agricultural system began to spring up that catered exclusively to rich people. Organic produce, grass-feed beef, artisan cheeses, unpasteurized milk, farmer’s markets, restaurants that tell you where the chicken came from and how many acres it had to run around in…”

Maher is correct.

As someone who uses “the alternative agriculture system” he describes, I know firsthand that 1. it can be expensive to eat healthy and 2. eating well also requires having the education to prepare the food properly and many people—both rich and poor—simply do not have this. Preparing food from scratch requires a certain amount of time as well. If someone is working long hours and/or multiple jobs it is far easier to throw a prepared processed meal in the microwave than make something from scratch. It used to be a joke but at the attorney’s office I worked at years ago, it was not uncommon to see the associates pack on the pounds given their massive workloads and lack of free time to cook or exercise. The shared refridgerator was full of ready-made-frozen entrees. Given that these were relatively well-off, educated people, what does this say about the majority of people I grew up in rural North Carolina?

Unfortunately, there is little sympathy in this society for fat people. Although many healthcare professionals consider obesity a disease, there is a common idea that the obese have control over what they eat and what they lack is willpower rather than healthy food choices or education.

Making fun of fat people is the last acceptable forms of discrimination around. Many people I know, who would never dream of making fun of someone on the basis of racial, ethnic or religious background, have no problems making fun of fat people. One acquaintance recently confided that they “disgust” him. This same person went on to say that despite living on a limited income, he always made sure to buy good healthy food.

This is all well and good, but not everyone has the options and knowledge that he has.

On a personal note, I grew up in a similar food desert over 200 miles away from my best friend in eastern NC. I lived on a diet of processed food and sugary drinks courtesy of my mother, and it was not until I was living on my own at college that I became the health nut that I am today. Had I not had the opportunities I had, chances are I would have ended up overweight and possibly diabetic like my mother.

As the mother of a toddler, I do not allow my daughter to have soda and to the amazement of many of my friends, she has never set foot inside a fast food restaurant. With that said, I do not consider myself a superior parent nor do I believe that my style of parenting gives me a right to look down on those who allow their children to eat and drink the sort of things I grew up on. Rather, I consider myself fortunate to be in the position I am to live this sort of lifestyle, and I am lucky to live in an affluent area with access to several farmers’ markets and upscale grocery stores. Lastly, I don’t have to choose between paying my electric bill or buying groceries.

Again, I am lucky.

Like many problems that this country faces, there is no easy solution to the obesity epidemic. Giving everyone who is morbidly obese gastric bypass surgery is not going to fix the problem, nor is it a solution to lecture them on exercising more and eating more more fruits and vegetables. (Frankly, even I am sick of hearing that last one, because it is so much easier said than done for the reasons mentioned.)

I do not know what the solution is, but giving everyone access to inexpensive, healthy food—as well as not placing blame on the victims—is a start.





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Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Kimberly Lo

Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor and freelance editor & writer based in Charlottesville, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework, travel, and photography. Connect with her on Facebook.


13 Responses to “A Visit to a Food Desert. ~ Kimberly Lo”

  1. Cathy says:

    This was a great piece, and you hit the nail on the head with this one! We all need access to inexpensive healthy food. This should be a top priority of government.

  2. Jennifer White says:

    Thank you! I was just bringing this issue up in a recent discussion.

  3. kimberlylowriter says:

    Thanks! It really is becoming more and more of a class issue. Morbidly obese people are overwhelmingly poor in the US.

  4. abcthrive says:

    As the aforementioned best friend, we would have had better luck with great produce at the farmer's markets that are available later in the year. In June, fresh produce, most of which is local and some organic, can be had very easily. What concerns me the most is not the inability to find good produce in the winter/early spring. This is a problem that existed for centuries before the advent of modern transportation, without the obesity problems that we are currently facing here in the US. The problem, as you pointed out, is in the education. So many people have NO idea where their food comes from. And I don't mean which farm produced it. They literally don't know anything about food, in general. Hamburger comes from grocery stores or fast food chains, not from cows. Our dependency on corporate farms becomes evident when a storm threat can decimate a grocery store. Our grandparents did not have Whole Foods or organic farmers markets from which to purchase their food. They grew it themselves, and preserved it either by freezing or canning or dehydrating. So that in the months when gardening wasn't an option, they had the goodness of the garden put away. This skill was learned from your parents and passed on to your children. But we have stopped learning. We have distanced ourselves from our food source, and that is the crux of the issue. The good news is that I am seeing a change in my area. What I am seeing here, in an area where there are no organic grocery stores and year round farmer's markets, is a resurgence of people who are looking to reaquire the ability and skills necessary to grow their own food. People who are committed to the lifestyle changes that are required to go to work and come home to weed the garden and collect the eggs and feed the chickens. People who will spend the late hours of the summer picking produce from plants that they have nurtured and then "put up" that produce by canning or freezing or dehydrating. People who will sit down to a meal that they grew with their own hands. Who not only know where the chicken on their plate comes from, but watched it hatch from its egg. I think that society as a whole is done a great disservice if our food education stops at what to buy at the grocery store. Inexpensive, locally grown, organic food for all is a wonderful thought, but not remotely practical if we aren't teaching people how to grow it themselves. "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

  5. kimberlylowriter says:

    ITA with you!

  6. Guen says:

    I completely disagree with this article in so many ways. Good food cost money because it requires more money to grow it organically. Perhaps the reason that their is not a farmers market or a Whole Foods (by the way…these are not everywhere-even in California), is because there is no need. There is a group of people who do not care to eat healthy. Be it that they are not educated or whatever the reason, they consciously decide not to. I live in a very poor part of California with a lot of drugs. About a year ago we had a wonderful, organic store that opened up-it didn't last 6 months. The one thing that I heard around town over and over again, was "It's so expensive-they have (blank, blank) at Walmart for a dollar less"!

    People-IT"S NOT DISCRIMINATION that is stopping people from eating healthy-it's stupidity!!!! If you want to eat good, nutritious food, then you might have to pay a dollar more to have it grown without help from chemicals and shipped 2,000 miles. The reality is the people who are buying the 2$ steaks and chicken nuggets at the fast food places are their own problem-there is solutions. When as a society are we going to stop making excuses for everyone's behavior and blaming something or someone else??

  7. kimberlylowriter says:

    Actually, you don't have to eat organically to eat healthy.

    Your comment about the store closing illustrates my point. If you were on a limited budget, then it WOULD make more sense to go to Wal-Mart. If you are not in a position to have to chose between the rent and food, then paying more for quality food is something you can do. It seems like you missed the point of my article.

    This was not about making excuses, but pointing out the reality of food deserts and the increasing amount of food segregation. (BTW, I never said farmer's markets or Whole Foods were everywhere. It's actually the opposite of what I said.) The fact is, obesity IS a national problem with real consequences to our healthcare system. You talk about solutions yet, I see none offered. A lot of making the right choices has to do with education and know how. Saying it's "stupidity" does nothing to tackle the problem as far as I see it. Nor is it true. Ignorance is not the same as stupidity.

  8. Sienna says:

    You are against fat discrimination, yet you post anonymous "scare photos" of fat women from behind? For shame! If I recognized my ass as your illustration for obesity, I would be so angry, both because you are negative objectifying bodies, and not paying models. Shame.

  9. neil says:

    One side of my brain becomes so disgusted at seeing obese people, "They are such slobs and don't care what they look like or what they do to the American image. They have no self control and are so ignorant they couldn't tie their own shoes if they wanted to." The other side of my brain looks at them as "beings of God" with no judgment. "They are people and should enjoy life to the fullest. Everyone is the same in the eyes of God." If an obese person bothers you who has the problem, the obese person or you?

  10. kimberlylowriter says:

    I actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the photo that was chosen. I originally submitted the article with a tasteful photo of President Taft. If you look at the bottom, you can see the photo credit, and it is not me. Not to sound snarky, but please look at the photo credit before you start shaming me or anyone and accusing them of 1. taking the pictures 2. not paying the models. FWIW, I do not know if the models were paid or not or if this was a staged photo or not.

  11. Guen says:

    I am on a VERY limited budget and I do choose to spend the extra money on healthy food. WHY? Because I am CHOOSING health over other things; clothes, entertainment, etc. Every single month I struggle to pay the mortgage and yet I still find ways to buy healthy food-so no I did not miss your point at all. You do not know what I am talking about when I refer to the people, the same ones that are complaining about the prices, and their lifestyle choices. You can believe what you want to believe, but the truth is there are people who do not care about their health because I see it everyday. To me it is a sad and careless action to call label this discrimination. All in all, it is our own choices that will determine our health. Wherever you are in the world there are options, to say that certain areas are discriminated against because they don't have access to fresh food-to me, is completely false. I believe that if there is a legitimate need and want, it would be there. The truth is, the areas that do not have access to these fresh foods choose not too and would rather have access to the drive through.

  12. kimberly lo says:

    It appears you have the education/knowledge to make the right choices for yourself. You may give up certain things but at the end of the day, you can still cover the necessities of life. Many do not have this option at all. That was a major point of the post. There ARE food deserts. They exist-you can actually click on the links in the article to see where they are. You claim you see people everyday "who do not care about their health". How can you know that is the case and not a case that they do not have the necessary knowledge or the money? Also, in many places in the world, people don't even have access to fresh drinking water so for you to claim that "wherever you are in the world there are options" is wholly untrue.

  13. sue says:

    Weather or not you eat food from Whole Foods has little to do with what you weigh. Eat too much natural peanut butter from Whole Foods and you gain weight. You can eat from McDonalds all day, every day, and still be thin. Just don't eat such large portions! And skip the soda! Ever heard of counting calories? I hope you aren't insinuating that those who live in so called "food deserts" are uneducated to the point that they can't do basic math and that they don't know that sugar is bad for you.