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  • 1100 Miles, 3 Observations

    Last weekend, I drove from Seattle, Washington to Las Vegas, Nevada over a three-day period (with stops in Meridian, Idaho and Ely, Nevada).

    Though both the departure and arrival points are well-known cities with diverse food landscapes (Las Vegas has a growing health-oriented community, and every restaurant at Wynn Hotel & Resort has either a separate vegan menu or a significant number of vegan appetizers and entrees, all created by the resort’s talented vegan chef), almost every locale between them was a different story.

    Below, three important observations (not necessarily new, but certainly reaffirmed) I made as I moved from lush mountaintops to arid desert.

    1. Personal responsibility? I have never fully bought into the “personal responsibility” argument in regards to health and nutrition.

    The idea that “people know what they need to be eating, they are just too lazy/dumb/apathetic/irresponsible to take care of themselves”is problematic and inaccurate. It doesn’t acknowledge the many shades of gray that exist in the world of food and nutrition (I believe our food choices are a combination of environmental factors and personal choice, with environmental factors weighing more heavily).

    Sure, there are people with a multitude of health problems who, despite having both the access and financial means to eat better, do nothing about it. However, there is another reality to consider. In Ely (population: 4,000), for instance, my hotel was a few steps from the town’s sole supermarket. I wondered in because despite having a plethora of “roadtrip snacks” in my car, I wanted a hot meal for dinner and the closest restaurants were a McDonald’s and an Arby’s.

    There were healthful foods in the supermarket that were certainly affordable: brown rice, oatmeal, peanut butter, baby carrots, beans and legumes come to mind.

    The issue, of course, comes when people seek convenience. That is where you see a noticeable differences between healthful and not-so-healthful options. An Amy’s frozen brown rice, tofu, and vegetable ‘bowl’ (which I was pleasantly surprised to come across) cost slightly over $5. A Hungry Man meal cost approximately 30% less — and provided 300% more calories.

    Some items common in many cities simply weren’t available there. Forget hummus — the only dip for vegetables was ranch or an avocado-based one that had more partially hydrogenated soybean oil than avocado.  At least one could seemingly make hummus at home. But, many ingredients — kale, quinoa, hemp seeds, and chia seeds — were not available.

    Our nutritional choices are only as good as our environment.

    2. To bring change, we need effective policy and strong food politics. We can educate on nutrition on a daily basis, but I can never expect someone who lives in a rural mining town to add fresh blueberries to their morning oatmeal when a two or three-day supply costs $8 (the median household income in Ely is approximately $36,000).

    Our current agricultural subsidy system makes minimally nutritious food not just “cheap”, but in many cases affordable. This is an important distinction to make; for many individuals, feeding four people for $5 a night isn’t a matter of inflating a savings account to take a cruise, but simply having enough money until the next paycheck comes along.

    3. A good challenge to keep in mind. The reality of these challenges is not foreign to me. I lived in New York City for ten years, where food deserts were just a twenty minute subway ride away from my apartments. However, I must say the impact wasn’t quite as strong when I could seemingly take another twenty minute subway ride in an opposite direction and walk past various high-end gourmet food shops.

    It wasn’t until I was in these remote towns (some where a reasonably-sized grocery store was 60 miles away, and farmers markets were inexistent for several hundred miles) that I perceived this in a much more jarring way. Even if finances weren’t an issue, certain foods many of us take for granted — kale, bok choy, nutritional yeast, and coconut milk — were unavailable.

    This is not to say that cooking healthy meals from scratch at home is unfathomable, but rather that some individuals — depending on economic and environmental factors — face more challenging obstacles than others.

    It’s quite sad that as picturesque and beautiful as this country is, the food landscape in many areas is bleak and in need of much sprucing up. I certainly think a positive change can ensue, but it’s change that, as much as some people may not like to hear it, needs to be looked at from a long-term lens that encompasses decades.

    UPDATE (4/22): I want to share one of my all-time favorite quotes, said by a professor of gender studies at a talk a few years ago, that I think is so applicable to issues of food justice and the ‘personal responsibility’ debate: “the more privilege you have, the more it looks like choice.”

    Share

    19 Comments

    1. tamaratattles said on April 21st, 2012

      Well that must have been eye-opening for you. I live in an Atlanta suburb and in order to find what you “take for granted” (bok choy,coconut milk) have to be sought out at Whole Paycheck or Trader Joes. We got a new Kroger recently that has organic vegetables and even a little mini “health food” type section where all the stuff you would eat is collected in one area. It really cuts down having to run all over huge store, but would still be considered limited in variety to someone used to having organic bok choy available within walking distance.

    2. Andy Bellatti said on April 21st, 2012

      I was slightly spoiled in Seattle, where conventional, city-wide supermarkets had bok choy, kale, chard, and various other dark leafy greens.

      I also want to point out that I never singled out “organic” bok choy. I am referring to conventional varieties, too.

    3. Fernando said on April 21st, 2012

      Though I agree that greater pressure and requirements of food-product companies would improve the situation, I still place greater emphasis on personal responsibility. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that either party in Washington would substantially cut food subsidies enough to dramatically affect the cheapness of processed foods (both parties receive substantial support from the food congloms).

      Moving from military post to military post, I have come across many towns like Ely. As much as we may criticize (and rightly so, on a wide range of issues) Walmart, those isolated towns with a Supercenter still carry not only the Amy’s line of products, but also quinoa, kale, chard, greek yogurts, soy milk and an increasing range of “natural” and some organic products that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

      As you noted, many of the smaller markets often don’t carry any of these. “All-natural JIF” peanut butter may be the best you can get.

      But though blueberries there may be expensive, but they’re not the only option. Even in Ely-type small markets, a wide range of common fresh foods is still available. They may not be organic, free of pesticides, rBGH, or genetic modification, but they’re still better than processed food products. And I’m sure most everyone recognizes that fresher is usually healthier.

      And even if the better-for-you food is more expensive, it’s a matter of priorities (and personal responsibility) that one makes the decision to spend a tight budget on health than cable or another disposable expense. Granted, for many folks, the situation is grave and they are barely getting by. But as high as obesity rates have gotten across the entire country, I cannot believe that more Americans don’t buy better food because they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck to cover just the basics. I have made those sacrifices; so can many others who choose not to.

      What most folks may not consider is that though the TV dinner, foot-long sub with mayo and Chipotle mayo, the “dollar-menu”, or stuffed-crust heat-at-home pizza are cheaper and more convenient (a huge factor in the popularity of processed over fresh foods), the long-term effects of such a diet are certainly more expensive: medical care, pills or insulin for illnesses resulting from weight-gain or poor diet; lowered self-esteem; less mobility; more costly plus-size clothing; sleep apnea; etc. Better education concerning these long-term impacts might affect consumer choices. But then again, it’s on the person to make the choice.

    4. Yuuki said on April 22nd, 2012

      Welcome to the southwest, and the rural food desert! You were truly out in the middle of nowhere! Urban food deserts get most of the press (and recently came under scrutiny in the NYTimes) but the rural food desert falls under the radar (in your case it was a literal desert).

      If you ask me, the food desert is an extension of the challenges faced by rural America, which is how to thrive with reduced access to nearly everything.

    5. Claire said on April 22nd, 2012

      I was struck that no one needs kale, hemp seeds, chia seeds or coconut milk to eat healthfully. The healthy foods you did find in the store would just as easily make a nutritious meal. I agree the problem is environmental, but it’s not only what is available and what’s not; it’s that people are no longer taught in high school how to shop at a grocery store, make a food budget or cook a meal. It’s that there is so many super tasty, less-than-nutritious options that would take a quarter of the time to prepare. Even in areas with the best-stocked groceries, people are making bad food choices.

    6. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2012

      Fernando,

      Thank you for commenting.

      The problem I have with the “personal responsibility” angle (and, again, I am referring to those who claim it is *all* — or mostly — about personal responsibility) is that it seems silly to argue that Americans have become “less responsible” about food choices since the early 1980s, when rates of obesity and chronic disease greatly increased.

      However, we know that food environments have become less healthful, that marketing to children became unregulated, and that agricultural subsidies shifted.

      I can’t comment on the Walmart issue because, during this road trip, I didn’t encounter any towns that had one.

      You are absolutely right that the supermarket in Ely had some common fresh foods (I pointed out a short list in the post). What is nevertheless astounding is that these products represented a minority of the selection and were not as “convenient” as other foods. In the frozen food aisle, healthful convenient foods were significantly pricier.

      The issue of ‘sacrifices’ is an interesting — and loaded — one. It hinges on the notion that everyone “knows” what is healthy. I can tell you from experience, though, that many people think a Kellogg’s Nutrigrain bar is “healthy”, or that Crystal Light is “healthy”, or that a fat-free Snackwell’s cookie is “a good choice”. I also think we have to be careful not to make a judgment call that having cable TV or a laptop is “irresponsible” if it means they therefore can’t eat five servings of vegetables a day. If anything, that is precisely the problem — eating healthfully, in many instances, represents a financial challenge.

      You also point to a very important issue, which is about long-term effects of unhealthful eating. That is one of the hardest concepts for people to grasp because there are no immediate results. It certainly adds a challenge to nutrition and public health initiatives.

    7. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2012

      Very well-put, Yuuki: “the food desert is an extension of the challenges faced by rural America, which is how to thrive with reduced access to nearly everything.”

      Thanks for commenting.

    8. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2012

      Claire,

      Of course no one needs kale, hemp, chia, or coconut milk to eat healthfully. However, they certainly help… and too many of us assume these are now “common” items and can take them for granted. And, remember, one key to healthful eating is variety.

      I agree with you that we are in a “cooking crisis” — I have written about this before. However, as I always say, education must be blended with good policy and healthful environments. Teaching people how to shop at a grocery store is more challenging when subsidized junk food is so affordable.

      If people are making bad food choices, rather than casting blame on them and passing judgment, we should ask ourselves: “Why have choices gotten worse over the past three decades?”.

    9. Hannah said on April 22nd, 2012

      Anyone interested in how America has gotten to the point it’s at regarding the way we eat and the availability of real, fresh food should really check out The American Way of Eating (http://www.amazon.com/The-American-Way-Eating-Undercover/dp/1439171955/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335129746&sr=8-1)

      I love to talk with others about healthy food and cooking, but people frequently tell me about cost and time barriers when it comes to eating well. I picked this book up when it first was making the blog rounds and it does a fabulous job of investigating why people eat what they do and how food gets from farm to plate in a detailed, way without being condescending. It was a great reality check for me about our food system and the challenges that will come with changing food related policies and practices.

      Everybody wants good food.

    10. Jane said on April 22nd, 2012

      Several thing I’ve learned living in a semi-rural area in the deep south (town of 80,000), 1 there is a lot more out there on the internet in regard to food than you think, basically if it’s not perishable it can be shipped often with free shipping. 2 start a garden even a mini one and experiment, I’ve had what I consider my first real successful crop as far as an investment this year (I’m still learning how to garden) and it is Kale a $2.99 investment for a 9 pack that has yield me at least 4x it’s price back in full grown produce. 3 and most important, if you want something at the grocery store ask. I’ve been told by the local manager that if they get enough requests they will add the product.

    11. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2012

      Jane,

      Thank you for commenting. I am aware that almost every company these days ships food, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the immediate food environment is scarce. The problem is immediate access, and that is what needs to be remedied.

      In terms of gardening — that is also very dependent on climate and location. Some folks can certainly grow a lot in some parts of the country, but in others (i.e.: the Southwest), it isn’t as simple.

    12. onerose03 said on April 23rd, 2012

      This post was very enlightening to me! I live in a rural area and make an effort to eat healthy, but I’ve seldom been able to try out any of your recipes because I can never find the ingredients. I always wondered why you picked such obscure items. I am starting to realize it’s not that you are picking obscure foods, but that my choices are very limited. When you grow up in a food desert it doesn’t seem like a desert to you :-) Maybe you could throw out a “desert-friendly” recipe now and again for your more isolated readership, now that you have a feel for what we have available to us!

      At the risk of sounding like a true bumpkin I do remember visiting a relative in a major city last year and being just as fascinated by our trip to the grocery store as any tourist attraction! I enjoy Asian-style cooking but am 1.5 hours from the nearest Asian grocery store.

    13. Norma said on April 24th, 2012

      Is there something wrong with non-organic, frozen blueberries in one’s morning oatmeal? Just playing devil’s advocate. But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been behind someone in line at the supermarket who gripes about the price of fresh fruit — last summer the woman in front of me told the cashier to take the fresh blueberries off her order; at $3.99 they were “too expensive” , but she was fine with paying $5.99 or more for a box of neon-colored kids’ cereal and apparently that $5 dollar, 500 calorie Crappaccino from Starbucks in her hand was fine, too. That was not the first or the last time I’ve observed someone complain about the “high cost” of eating healthy while including some expensive junk (including cigarettes, $8-ish a pack here; I’m gonna venture your average smoker goes through at least half a pack a day). People will find the money for what they want. I am sure you know plenty of parents who haven’t bought themselves new clothes in years so that Little Johnny can have new hockey equipment or whatever; perhaps that’s a more noble sacrifice than choosing to forego a pint of blueberries in order to buy that box of blue-colored cereal but not really a different theory when there is a finite amount of money to spend. All the people I know personally (in a very financially diverse suburb 50 miles from Boston, where there are housing projects three miles from $1mm seaside mansions) who complain to me about the high price of eating healthy (which the media can’t stop harping on and which, as you mentioned, isn’t really true), regardless of their economic status, all have smartphones….all have cable or satellite TV that runs $100/ month or more…all eat out at crappy chain restaurants with 1,000 calorie cheese-drowned entrees with their families regularly, get pizza delivered at least once a week and all have two or more children who participate in sports or other activities that require significant financial, time and travel commitments…we all choose where to spend our resources and what we consider “necessary.”

    14. Rachel said on April 24th, 2012

      I’m definitely in agreement with what a lot of people here are saying. It is all up to choice whether or not you eat healthy. To act like you have no choice is simply naive and dumb.

      I was chatting with my co-worker who is trying to lose weight and is having trouble even though he thinks he is trying really hard. He hears so much misinformation (which he listens to no matter how many times I correct him) and he doesn’t have any restraint. He just gives in to whatever he feels like eating and doesn’t use portion control.

      I ask him questions about his diet to help him eat healthier, but he just answers me like he has no choice over it. It bothers me to the nth degree because I am allergic to dairy and eggs and I have learned to have that restraint so I don’t get sick. I understand how difficult it is, but it can be done. I don’t have any sympathy for those who say they have no choice because you do have a choice. Even in a food desert, you still have a choice to make do with what you have, but most people don’t understand the power of restraint and choice.

      Thanks for sharing this!

    15. Norma said on April 25th, 2012

      @Rachel, I agree. In fact, I caught something on the news last week and looked it up online: http://blisstree.com/live/obesity/food-deserts-dont-exist-according-to-new-studies-484/
      It’s a study that debunks the “food desert” concept in the first place. I’m not going to say that inner cities have a Whole Foods on every corner, but I am going to say that the unfortunate truth about the American population as a whole — not just a certain demographic or income level — does not really care about nutrition and does not care to learn about it. Our society — across the board — is geared toward fast, tasty, instant, convenient; enjoy NOW…pay the price later. I believe plenty of people, if income were not an issue and they lived directly next door to a Whole Foods, would STILL choose to hit the drive-thru, send out for pizza, and eat Eggo waffles drowned in Aunt Jemima syrup…because they are fast, tasty, easy, convenient foods (and Eggo says in big red letter that it’s made with whole grains and has fibers, so it is totally good for you…*eyeroll*). Shopping, preparing, cooking and THINKING take away valuable time that could be spent playing XBox or on Facebook or watching The Real Housewives of the Trailer Park…our society is just not skewed toward a healthy lifestyle; it is skewed toward expending as little mental and physical energy as possible, and influenced so heavily by the power of advertising, Big Food, Big Diet and Big Pharma.

    16. Andy Bellatti said on April 25th, 2012

      Norma,

      I think Mark Bittman hit it on the head with this comment last week:

      “Two new studies have found that so-called “food deserts” not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent neighborhoods, but also have more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants. But if you ask me that means those aren’t food deserts.”

    17. Tiffany said on April 25th, 2012

      Great post and thanks for the reminder. I love that quote!

    18. Norma said on April 26th, 2012

      @Andy, thanks. I am not one to go on anecdotal evidence, and, as I said, I live in a very diverse suburb that has a vast range of housing, income, and neighborhoods. But within walking distance of the housing projects is a massive Super Stop & Shop that also sells all types of prepared foods (sushi made to order, roasted chickens, etc.), a Shaw’s supermarket slightly smaller but still large and fully stocked, a Walgreens with a decent grocery department (large freezer section), two convenience stores. There is *nothing* within walking distance of the sprawling, 3,000 home subdivision that I live in, however…so that knife cuts both ways. There are healthier eating options for every lifestyle and every budget; what it comes down to is does the person care about it enough to do it?

    19. Jamee Dyches said on April 27th, 2012

      I recently moved to Salt Lake City, but before that I lived in a small town in northern Utah that only had chain restaurants like Chili’s and Texas Roadhouse, or your basic fast food joints. As far as any specialty super foods or plant-based alternatives, there was only one aisle at the local Smith’s, which also had a small organic produce section. In comparison to all of the amazing vegan/plant-based restaurants that are in SLC, (as well as more than one Whole Foods, and multiple local specialty grocery stores) my former small town offered practically nothing. For people like me, living in a big city is mandatory because I want that availability. But not everyone is in a position to move (or wants to). It’s sad, and I wish there was a quick fix for it. I guess awareness is the first step.

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