February 12, 2014

Shocker: The Urban “Poor” Like Healthy Food, Too.


“To see things in the seed, that is genius.”

~ Lao Tzu

Snapshot: during the annual Thanksgiving feast at an urban community center, shopping carts are wheeled into the dining room with “up for grabs” surplus food. Most of the guests at this meal are living well below the poverty line, and receiving food assistance.

In the carts there are 20 pies in unopened boxes, several loaves of bread, some milk and butter, maybe five whole hams, bags of dinner rolls, cans of broth and bags of carrots, lettuce, celery, carrots and assorted fruit. Several people make a beeline for the carts and pick not the pies, not the hams but the fresh fruits and vegetables.

In five minutes every carrot, onion, apple and head of lettuce is gone.

(I’m not saying that they weren’t interested in the other food, because they were; it’s hard for anyone to turn down a box full of pie).

My point is that these people, living in a food desert without a grocery store within 10 miles, wanted the stuff that was hardest to get. If you can’t get to a grocery store it’s hard to find produce that doesn’t look like it’s been beaten with chains and stored in a Soviet sub-basement for a week.

Think about that for a minute: we know people are healthier when they include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Those of us among the “worried well” are vegans, vegetarians, eaters of kale, and juicers of juices. Some of us (okay, maybe it’s just me) wear seven bracelets and move one to the other wrist throughout the day as I get my seven servings in.

And I’m not rich, particularly at the moment, but I have a car and I go grocery shopping every week and buy produce. In the summer I have a choice of farmer’s markets as well as friends who garden and give me fresh tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, basil and whatever else they have going.

Would I eat all that stuff if I had to take two buses to get to a store? Maybe I could have fresh produce in the summer when community gardens sprung up in urban areas, but in Michigan’s long, cold winters? When I’m exhausted after a day at work, or I don’t have anybody to watch my kids and I have to take them all on the bus, and it’s 10 below 0 with the wind chill?

Nope—I’m going to eat what I can get.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is my soapbox: we could grow enough food to feed everyone in this country who is hungry, but we don’t. We have trapped the people who most desperately need fresh, healthy food in areas where they can’t get any, even if they live in areas where food grows year-round. We set the stage for chronic illnesses like obesity and diabetes and then (my personal favorite) we judge “those people” because they eat Burger King and highly processed foods and end up with diet-related chronic illnesses that cost us all billions in healthcare.

And when we ride in, all well-meaning and judgy and offer their kids fruits and vegetables we throw up our hands when they don’t want them. Which is not odd, considering that they haven’t eaten them before. I know that my kid eats fruits and veg because I had access to them, could afford them, offered them early and often and knew how to make them delicious. If he’d grown up without that exposure and someone offered him asparagus, he’d think it was gross, too.

So from my soapbox, I read about Seattle’s Beacon Forest, an urban “food forest” where anyone can pick their fair share of what’s growing. For free.

Seven acres of land. An “edible arboretum” with fruit trees, a berry patch, a nut grove, and community garden plots for families to grow whatever they want to eat.

And I am blown away by this project, that undoubtedly met with a chorus of “we can’t do that/we’ve never done that/people will take more than their share” in a society where we punish people for using their own land to grow food instead of ornamental grass.

But it still happened. Compassionate, intelligent people who care about the earth and the people who live here made it happen.

As other people collect fallen fruit from abandoned property and get it to the folks in food deserts and create community gardens so people can grow what they need or at least receive part of the bounty every week, and set up deliveries of fresh produce in areas where there are no grocery stores.

And I’m thinking, scheming, wondering what could be done in a place like Michigan, where we basically live on the tundra for at least three months of the year. How could we give people what’s freshest and best during the growing season and still help them during the months when nothing grows?

I think crazy, impractical things about growing tomatoes and green beans and onions and berries on acres of public land in the spring and summer and offering the produce for free along with canning/preserving sessions where people could “put things up” for winter. There would be a sliding scale, with canning supplies free to those who can’t pay.

I remember those women at the community center who were not statistics, not a “them,” not people who had chosen to live in a food desert and feed their children fast food and potato chips. They wanted what I want for my family: the best. What can we do to help them get it?

I’m not looking for hand-wringing guilt, which is not terrifically helpful to the folks who are suffering.

I’m looking for this: eat your fruits and veggies, stay healthy, be grateful and use some of your healthy, radiant energy to make sure everybody can have their own share of what’s fresh and good. Think about the resources and needs in your community and take a step.

Can you grow an extra row and donate it to a local Food Bank every week? Maybe get a group together, plant a community garden plot and send someone to an urban community center once a week to give what you grew? Find someone with expertise in canning/preserving/pickling to run monthly sessions at a local church kitchen?

Let’s make this grow.

P.S. This is a great place to start.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise





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