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Foodies in da ‘Hood?

By Tracie McMillan


The Huffington Post • Aug. 15, 2006

Forget organics. Stop worrying about local. Just get some fresh food into the ‘hood. That’s a pretty basic summary of the latest brainstorm in the “How do we stop being so fat?” conundrum: Use bodegas–the cheap corner stores found in poor urban neighborhoods–as beacons of health. If it sounds unlikely that the local one-stop ice cream/malt liquor shop could be a promoter of sound nutrition, you’d best pause a moment and really take a look at the Bodegas as Catalysts for Healthy Living Act, introduced into the House in late July by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).

That mouthful of a title obliquely refers to a small business grants program it would establish to help bodegas stock produce and market healthy items, as well as funding local education campaigns to spur purchases. In tackling the issue of access, the bill addresses one of the most salient critiques one can launch at food gurus like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan: That for many Americans, the issue isn’t about finding a locally grown, organic apple. It’s about finding an edible apple, period.

There’s a growing body of research, most of it localized, around the issue of food access. In Bushwick, Brooklyn–a neighborhood that Rep. Velazquez, who sponsored the bodega bill, represents–city researchers found that 8 in 10 food stores were bodegas and less than one-third of them carried any kind of produce at all, be it a mealy apple or farm fresh tomato. Researchers took one look at the existing infrastructure and came up with a suggestion that was simultaneously groundbreaking and mundane: Get bodegas to fill in where supermarkets can’t, a strategy already being explored in Oakland, CA. That report prompted Velazquez to author the bill, which in its infancy has garnered co-sponsorship from a handful of representatives.

Bushwick is one of the city’s poorest districts, and it’s no surprise to learn that it’s also one of the least healthy. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease all present at far higher levels than the city average. All that illness costs taxpayers a lot of money. There aren’t local stats available for Bushwick, but America is already spending an estimated $80 billion a year on obesity-related illness.

But is fighting obesity really so simple? “Build it and they will come?”

Yes and no.

Let’s start with the yes, where there’s a lot of research to back it up. Here’s a couple of the most useful bits. For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2002 American Journal of Public Health study. What’s more, a recent report on food deserts in Chicago found that the further people lived from a grocery store, the higher their rates of obesity. And here’s a kicker: If you live closer to fast food than the supermarket, you’re more likely to be overweight, because obesity rates also rose as the imbalance between fast food restaurants and supermarkets grew. The bottom line is mind-numbingly simple: “You can’t choose healthy food if you don’t have access to it,” says Mari Gallagher, who authored the Chicago study.

There is, of course, a long list of caveats–none of it based on research, most of it tied to “common sense,” and therefore applicable to affluent and struggling neighborhoods alike. People like junk; they like fat, and sugar, and throw in a beer while you’re at it. People could eat healthy if they really set their mind to it. People don’t need the government telling them what to eat. (This last one is most common from free-market cheerleaders, and it’s frequently trotted out against other anti-obesity ideas like limiting the density of fast food restaurants).

The “common sense” end of the debate is where the cracks start to show in the work of lofty foodies like Pollan and Waters: To get people to really take their food seriously, you have to do a mix of education and marketing, while simultaneously making it easy for them to eat well. Succeeding in the first half of that equation is simply not the sort of thing that someone who waxes rhapsodically about killing a boar for dinner can achieve among this country’s working class, be it urban, rural or somewhere in between.

There’s a lot to be said on that last point–namely that there is a slew of grassroots groups doing that very work, and having astonishing (if anecdotal) success. But for now let’s stick to the news: Some of our lawmakers are finally thinking about the nation’s obesity epidemic in a smart way and doing more than simply saying “Eat better.” Time will tell if it goes anywhere, but it’s a promising first step.

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