April 3, 2013

A Visit to a Food Desert. ~ Kimberly Lo

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

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