Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Time to Take Collective (as Opposed to Individual) Approaches to Food Access Issues

It's a crying shame so many people lack access to good food
There’s a problem in our food system and it’s a big one. It centers on access and equity. Access to good food and the equitable availability of it. And between the two of them it’s killing us.

              According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 111 million people in the U.S. are obese. That’s more than a third of all adults and almost 20 percent of children and adolescents.

              Obesity is not experienced equally. According to CDC reports, 35 percent of African Americans are considered obese. Among Native Americans, it’s 30 percent, with Latinos also weighing in at about 30 percent. With white Americans, the number drops to 24 percent.

              This all speaks to poverty and hunger, something that at first glance appears contradictory, carrying unhealthy body weight and being hungry. Again, it all boils down to access and equity.

              Folks with a high enough income tend not to believe access to good food is a problem. Many assert that anyone can get food if they really want it. There are stores, farmers markets, government programs, food banks, pantries, you name it. If a person’s obese, it’s their own fault.

              But it’s not that simple.

There's a big difference
              The food movement is ripe with an ethic of individualism. Whether it’s a concern about obese people choosing to eat fattening food or a permaculture farmer who wants to live “off the grid” and grow her own food, the underlying theme is an individual’s relationship to food.

              Yet with few exceptions, this perception of individualism is a farce. We live in a culture driven by systems. Driving those systems are corporations, which are about as far from individualism as you can get.

              What we have are collective problems. This raises questions of equity. What’s fair? Who has what, how much and why? Put another way, who doesn’t have what and why?

              In this community, it’s a fact that persons of color make up a statistically disproportionate number of residents earning low wages. Food experts refer to many communities of color as being “food deserts.” It’s a term coined by the federal government and defines a geographic area in which there are few if any grocery stores. Depending on which agency, the distance is one or two miles.

              A couple miles isn’t a big deal. Unless you have a several bags of groceries and have to walk because you don’t have a ride. Or have to tote them on a bus that doesn’t pass near your home. Or must shuttle there and back a taxi. Or have small kids with no sitter. So much for access.
Good food is fresh, green and affordable

              A review of studies by Policy Link discovered that only eight percent of Blacks live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. That’s sobering information. It’s also a clear indication of racial inequity.

              Here’s the “good” news: the term “food desert” is actually a misnomer. There’s plenty of food. The convenience stores, fast food joints and gas stations all have it. It’s just the majority of the food is processed versus organic. It’s also high in fat, salt and sugar – all drivers of poor health outcomes. Hence the unequal rates of obesity.

              To top things off, the term food desert conspires to portray these communities as negative, unproductive places, when in fact many thrive with backyard, church and community gardens. Not enough food to feed the entire community but still. The unflattering perception fosters and perpetuates inequities, perceived and real.

              It’s time to focus on solutions that make collective changes, instead of blaming the individual. Let’s act beyond creating alternatives or niches for small, privileged groups of persons, and examine and remove policies and practices that result in food system injustices. It’s the equitable thing to do.

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