Prevention is at the heart of the health care debate, but low-income and minority communities are often deprived of the nourishing options they deserve. Worse still, they're frequently blamed or held in contempt for the diseases that result. Needless to say, the health of all Americans has never mattered more: as talk turns to universal coverage, our society can no longer afford to pretend that the well-being of entire demographics exists in isolation. Fortunately, empowering low-income and minority neighborhoods to take responsibility for their food choices could have extraordinarily positive effects for American society where health, economy and culture are concerned. This is the first in a three-part series exploring low-income food systems, and how they can be improved through the addition of well-advertised and economically viable farmers' markets and community gardens.
According to a report by U.S. Medicine, of all U.S. citizens, low-income and minority individuals (grouped together here because of medical statistics) are at greatest risk of heart disease and the onset of type 2 diabetes. Sadly, these health problems are largely preventable, often resulting from a lifetime of poor dietary choices. Better said, they are the result of poor dietary options: for many low-income individuals, choosing healthy foods is not possible on a day-to-day basis.
At the core of the issue is access to fresh, affordable food and the subversive encouragement of corporate marketing campaigns that promote the opposite. According to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the "availability of fast-food restaurants and energy-dense foods has been found to be greater in lower-income and minority neighborhoods." Conversely, the Journal notes that individuals in communities with greater access to fresh food are less likely to become obese or suffer other weight-related problems.
Targeting low-income consumers of all ages is essential, as food habits are unlikely to change in a single generation. Unfortunately, most of the farmers' markets near where I live (Houston, TX)--some of which are located in low-income neighborhoods--have visibly imbalanced attendance, attracting few poor or minority customers, if any at all. Even outside of farmers' markets, however, many low-income and minority consumers nationwide have stopped purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables because of cost, reports the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. As a child, a steady stream of junk food would have been my dream. As an adult, I'm terrified to imagine a world where nobody's mother says, "Eat your veggies" before offering dessert.
It will take a while for eating habits to change, but the process has to begin somewhere--namely with the availability and advertising of healthier, engaging options like farmers' markets and community gardens. As part of the revised health care plan (whatever that will be) Washington would do well to encourage cities to establish community gardens and teach citizens to use them. Most importantly, the government should subsidize the expensive EBT machines necessary to accept food stamps at farmers' markets--a topic I will address in the second part of this series.
But if grocery stores aren't attracting enough consumers to their produce sections, why should farmers' markets be any different? Especially since they're often perceived as being more expensive?? Because farmers' markets are vibrant, dynamic and social places. They naturally attract attention in ways that grocery stores cannot. Part of what we're missing when we eat prepackaged or fast food is the symbolic aspect of it: what it means to grow, harvest and prepare food. Farmers' markets and community gardens bring that back twofold by allowing people to gather food together and by encouraging at-home preparation of that food. There is a reason why everyone gravitates to the kitchen when something is cooking--turns out, it's a healthy habit.
Empowerment is at the heart of the issue. Individuals and communities that are not encouraged to have a relationship with whole food (natural and unprocessed) are unlikely to have a healthy relationship to their bodies -- as medical statistics reiterate. If people in low-income neighborhoods are to improve their health, they need to feel good about their food choices, which means having better options; knowing about those options and affording those options. Farmers' markets and community gardens are an ideal way to integrate health and community and should be actively adopted and subsidized by cities nationwide. Next week I'll explore some of the challenges and possibilities facing affordable farmers' markets and thriving community gardens across the country.