By Wilton Corkern
Trustee, Corina Higginson Trust
Last Wednesday’s Daily included a link to David Bornstein’s excellent piece from the New York Times entitled “Time to Revisit Food Deserts.” He writes about two recent studies, which concluded that just living close to a grocery store doesn’t guarantee that a person will be healthy and well nourished. In fact, this “revisiting” of the concept of food deserts – defined by USDA as census tracts that contains concentrations of low-income people in which at least a third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store – has gotten much play in the past week.
But there is a danger in reading too much into this new data. The fact is, thoughtful people in the food policy discussion never said proximity to a store means poor people can or will eat healthy diets. Bornstein correctly points out that many factors enter into a person’s decision about what to eat. Stores in poor neighborhoods often have produce that is less than desirable. Many people don’t know how to prepare fresh produce – especially items with which they are unfamiliar – or don’t have the time or the kitchen equipment to do so.
And then there’s taste. I have enough money to buy healthy food. I have several good supermarkets and two farmers’ markets within a mile of my house. I have a nice kitchen, tons of cookbooks, and plenty of pots, pans, and gadgets. I know and love the taste of a ripe tomato, fresh off the vine, or fresh Brussels sprouts, cooked with a little garlic. Yet I also crave greasy burgers, salty French fries, and just about every other salty, sweet, and fatty food you can think of. When I read former FDA commissioner David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating a while back, I was pretty sure he’d written about me specifically. He describes a phenomenon he calls “conditioned overeating,” by which many of us are drawn to – even addicted to – “highly palatable” foods, like those we shouldn’t eat.
On top of all that, those fatty, salty, sweet foods that are so bad for us are, on a calorie-for-calorie basis way cheaper than the good stuff.
The D. C. Central Kitchen’s Mike Curtin wrote of this issue in the Huffington Post last week, “Turning our backs on individual parts of a larger solution simply because they do not offer a quick, comprehensive cure is to admit defeat before we even begin.”
Nutrition is a complicated business. But one thing is certain: even if I have the knowledge of good food, the facilities to prepare it, and the means to buy it, without access to it, I wouldn’t have a chance.
Getting rid of food deserts won’t guarantee good nutrition for poor people. But until we do, the people who live in them won’t have a chance, either.
Wilton Corkern is a trustee of the Corina Higginson Trust and a WRAG Board member. He is pleased to be part of a regional group of grantmakers exploring the most strategic role for philanthropy in strengthening our local food system and working toward securing healthy affordable food for all.