The nation’s salad bowl has a surprising and growing problem.
California’s Central Valley produces almost one-third of the nation’s domestically grown fresh produce. But many of the region’s residents don’t eat much fruit or vegetables ― a fact reflected in the region’s heightened rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health concerns.
This problem, of course, isn’t unique to the Central Valley — few Americans today eat as much fruit and vegetables as we should.
But the stark contrast between the food many of the farm-heavy region’s residents are harvesting in the fields and what they’re eating in their homes prompted researchers at the University of California, Merced, to ask people what motivates their food purchases.
The answers, UC Merced public health communication professor Susana Ramirez told HuffPost, were surprising.
“The ‘where I can get it’ concern, at least in this community, is not as big of a concern as ‘how can I pay for it,’” Ramirez said.
Researchers began the study thinking that Central Valley residents’ limited consumption of healthy food was likely because a significant portion of the population live in “food deserts” that are at least 10 miles from a large grocery store.
But researchers soon discovered that access to healthy foods might not be the problem — at least not for the 79 Merced County residents they surveyed. The residents — who, like much of the Central Valley, are predominantly Latino and mostly lower-income — overwhelmingly said that they had “ample” access to fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, even if there were no traditional grocery stores.
Instead of supermarkets, the residents said fresh fruits and vegetables were available from farmer stands, farmers markets, mobile vendors and as gifts from neighbors.
“If you live in that community, you learn to adapt,” Ramirez said.
But ingenuity can only go so far in the face of crippling poverty. The latest census data show 25 percent of Merced County residents living below the poverty line.
According to the study, 65 percent of participants said fruits and vegetables were too expensive for them, even though more than 70 percent agreed that they had access to a “large selection” of healthy foods. The findings were in line with responses to the 2014 state health interview survey, the study noted.
“They’re saying that the [fresh, healthy] food is there, but they can’t buy it — though they would like to buy it,” Ramirez said. “The problem in this particular community is the tremendous level of unemployment and poverty — and these factors can’t be compensated for in other ways.”
Of course, many staple fruits and vegetables aren’t particularly expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s thrifty food plan and other resources outline how affordable foods can be part of a balanced diet.
But the cost for some families goes beyond the sticker price, Ramirez explained. Members of many lower-income families work multiple jobs and don’t have the time to shop without a car, then prepare foods, for example. And fresh foods spoil or might be shunned by children, risking wasting household resources.
“They’re saying that the [fresh, healthy] food is there, but they can’t buy it — though they would like to buy it." University of California-Merced professor Susana Ramirez
These factors can push people toward convenience foods like packaged and processed grocery staples and fast-food items to keep their families fed.
“If I can go to McDonald’s and I can get a chicken sandwich for $1 and a salad for $6, I’m going to have to think twice about” choosing the healthy option, one respondent told researchers.
The study suggests that public health and food-access advocates focused on expanding supermarkets to so-called food deserts may be missing the point.
While some research links the opening of a supermarket in a former food desert with healthier eating habits, other recent research contradicts that finding, suggesting a new supermarket had little impact on community members’ food purchases.
Ramirez suggested that affordability is a key component of efforts to increase access to healthy foods in underserved communities, particularly at a time when the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could face cuts.
Ramirez pointed to examples like Double Up Food Bucks — an initiative that allows customers using SNAP benefits to double their benefits when they buy fresh produce. Previous research shows such programs increase fruit and vegetable consumption among participating families.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Ramirez said. “We already have really successful assistance programs that put money in peoples’ pockets so they can buy produce, and that’s what they do with it.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.