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.”