We know how to avoid diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Go to your local farmers’ market and buy food for the week. Cook everything from scratch. Then give yourself a self-satisfied pat on the back for reducing your carbon footprint.
I lived in this liberal-privileged-foodie fantasy land until I did an Americorps VISTA year in the Bronx. My responsibilities included managing the food stamps redemption program at a neighborhood farmers’ market. It wasn’t a twee GrowNYC Greenmarket– it was a volunteer and grassroots effort by community gardeners who were deeply passionate about increasing access to local fruits and vegetables.
The community was in dire need of it– there are high rates of obesity and diabetes in the Bronx. According to the South Bronx District Public Health Office, four in ten residents say it’s difficult or impossible to find high quality produce in their neighborhoods. In terms of eating out, my work lunchtime options were McDonald’s, scrap pizza, “Chinese” food prepared behind bullet proof glass, or Kennedy Fried Chicken. I usually brought food to work.
Going to Manhattan for food was not an option. The Bronx is DENSE– there are about 1.4 million people packed into 42 square miles. Riding the subway round trip from the Central Bronx to the famous Union Square market downtown could easily take two hours minimum. I know from experience that lugging groceries home on the subway or city buses is a pain.
Farmers weren’t interested in selling their vegetables in the Bronx when they could go downtown and charge double or triple to yuppies who wouldn’t complain. But the community gardeners fought hard to start the neighborhood market. They sold produce from the community gardens and eventually convinced two incredible farmers to join in. Feathery collard greens and kale were piled high alongside ripe local peaches and fresh eggs from the gardens’ chickens. There were popular cooking demonstrations, attracting crowds of people eager to prepare simple and healthy meals. We redeemed tons of WIC coupons from mothers eager to take local produce home to their kids.
But acclimating to the rhythm of farmers’ market shopping takes effort, and it’s more intimidating than the grocery store. Lots of people work on Saturday mornings, and farmers’ markets don’t accommodate ethnic diets. Our Puerto Rican and Dominican customers couldn’t rely on the market for rice and beans or tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro for sofrito. They couldn’t buy a chicken, and even if they could, they’d be shocked by the price of it. Actually, many folks simply assumed our beautiful vegetables were more expensive even though the prices were competitive with local grocery stores.
Redeeming food stamps at farmers’ markets is getting easier, but it’s still a clumsy process. Mobile terminals are expensive, have difficulty picking up a signal, and break. Most markets use the awkward token system, shepherding customers to a special booth where they estimate how much food stamps money they’ll spend. You’re stuck with extra tokens if you overestimate. No wonder many food stamps recipients prefer the grocery store.
I love working at farmers’ markets. They build a sense of community, and they really do improve access to fresh foods. But they’re treated like the antidote to every food justice problem. We lose sight of the fact that most people buy their food at grocery stores and no one can be expected to cook every single meal.
Why are low income neighborhoods denied access to good food? How do you attract better grocery stores, take-out options, and healthy foods to a low-income neighborhood? Is it simply a matter of money? Is there really no demand for healthy foods in these communities? I would say there is a demand after working in the Bronx, but these other questions are more complex.