It’s that time of year where everyone decides that some changes to their diet, love lives, careers, or what have you need to be reigned in. Something about out with the old in with the new. I know this because I used to be the same way. I try to make small changes throughout the year that I can keep up with. So far, MOST of the changes have stuck.
A few years ago I wrote a blog around this time highlighting how to eat healthy organic foods on a budget. I realize now how privileged I was to even write a blog of that nature. As an adult, I have always lived in an area where grocery stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables were within walking distance, or a short drive away. When our family moved from California to Texas, I googled the nearest Trader Joe’s to locate areas to live in so that our family could maintain access to healthy food options. Again, A privilege not many people can afford.
After my previous blog was posted, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who lived in New York and she talked about how hard it was to find fresh fruits and vegetables in her local bodega. Most of her fruits and vegetables had to be purchased in cans so that they could last longer. She couldn’t afford to waste money on food that would expire too quickly. In addition to her lack of proximity to a grocery store, there was also the fact that she didn’t own a vehicle, which severely hampered her ability to gain access to a store outside of her neighborhood. She spoke about riding the subway or bus to the nearest grocery store and having to lug her groceries back the same way and walk up two or three flights of stairs to get to her apartment. She couldn’t buy in bulk like I could at her nearest Costco.
I know that food deserts in our communities are rampant and being able to find healthy options to feed our kids can sometimes be a difficult task. There are three main factors that contribute to food deserts: income, proximity to a grocery store, and access to a vehicle. Additional factors like age and physical disabilities help contribute to being able to access fresh fruits and vegetables or even healthier options for foods. In a 2020 study, the USDA estimated that 19 million Americans live in a food desert. A food desert is defined as a low-income area more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. 10 miles or more if you live in a rural area.
Food Desert vs Food Swamps
Living in a food desert doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t any access to food. It means that being able to choose healthy food is a problem. There are many communities that don’t have grocery stores but have an abundance of convenience stores or corner stores. When I grew up in L.A. we didn’t live far from a grocery store (it was within walking distance). We walked there often. My grandmother didn’t own a car (she never had a driver’s license but that’s a different blog). While the grocery store wasn’t very far, the liquor store on the corner of our block was much closer. We visited the liquor store often for snacks, candy, soda, and whatever else we could buy with a dollar. The liquor store had food and the local dollar store also had food, most of the food ready-made filled with sugar, salt or fat. Where food deserts lack grocery stores in low-income communities, experts use the term food swaps to define convenience stores and corner stores that sell an abundance of unhealthy food options. Neither are successful options for a healthy lifestyle.
Food deserts and the impact on our health
If you live in a food desert or food swamp chances are high that most of the food you are consuming is processed. Eating processed food over a long period of time can have lasting effects on your health. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and high cholesterol are just a few effects that can have negative health impacts due to eating processed foods. According to the CDC, one in every four deaths is attributable to heart disease. Meat and dairy products both contain the artery-clogging type of cholesterol, known as LDL. Eat This Not That says eating burgers or breakfast sandwiches with sausage, bacon, eggs, and cheese often all contribute to higher cholesterol levels, and these items are always readily available at fast food restaurants.
Healthier food to look for in a food desert/swamp
I know I just hit you with a lot of information on food deserts and swamps. If you happen to live in a community that is characterized by a food desert or food swamp, don’t lose hope. Remember I talked earlier about that whole, out with the old in with the new? You can still choose healthier food options to help with your goals. And remember making small changes and creating habits is better than not making any changes at all. Even taking on more changes than you can handle can lead to frustration and hinder lifestyle changes. You know the phrase too much too soon? Don’t do too much too soon. Baby steps. Now back to the food options:
Buy fresh food when you can- If you are in an area where a grocery store is easily accessible, stock up on as much food as you can. Most fruits and vegetables can be washed, trimmed, cut, and frozen for up to six months. Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, taro root, parsnips and butternut squash will last for several weeks if stored in the refrigerator.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are great options- Swap out canned fruits and vegetables for frozen fruits and veggies. Frozen produce has the same nutritional value as fresh produce and the freezing process helps to maintain that nutritional value. Buying frozen produce is often cheaper and can last months in the freezer.
Keep these pantry staples on hand- Brown rice, dried beans, lentils, plain oats, nuts, and seeds are all great options for creating healthy meals.
Choose better packaged foods- I am not going to assume that everyone is a top chef and can create wonderful edible masterpieces that leave their families wanting more. Creating foods from scratch for the single mom that just worked all day can add an additional burden. If packaged foods is what you can contribute, I will still tip my hat to you. Long gone are the days of unhealthy tv dinners. When purchasing packaged foods, read the labels. Try to stick with foods that have no more than 600 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of sugar.
Start your own garden- I know, I know, who has time to start a garden? But seriously, think about it. Starting a fruit and vegetable garden is a great way to create access to healthy foods. Replanting kitchen scraps can help you grow your own food. For scallions, leeks, and fennel, cut off one inch of the bulb end with the root attached. Put the piece you cut off root-side down in a cup with about half an inch of water. Refresh the water every other day, you’ll start seeing new shoots. Instead of tossing the bottoms of celery, or romaine lettuce, place them base-side down in a shallow bowl with ½ inch of water. Keep them near a window and you’ll see leaves start to grow. Then, when you see roots beginning, transfer them to soil-filled pots. You can do the same for potatoes! If your potatoes have started to sprout eyes, cut the potato into chunks. Each chunk having one or two eyes. Plant the chunks in a five-gallon planter or bucket of soil. Each eye has the potential to grow into a new potato.
I have to honestly say that I am glad that my friend called me out. Realizing that food insecurity is a real threat in our communities helped open my eyes. Food deserts and swamps can have a negative effect on not only our diets but also our health. Food and healthy eating should be a basic right. Unfortunately, that is not the case when it comes to marginalized communities. I’m understand that creating more access to food and making sure that it’s available will not dramatically decrease food related illnesses.
If you are in need of food check and to see if you qualify for SNAP or WIC services. Check out your local farmer’s market and inquire whether they donate produce they are unable to sell. Visit your local food bank or food pantry for emergency food resources. Ample Harvest is a non profit company that lists over 8,000 food pantries nationwide. Visit their website here.
COVID-19 is still ravaging our communities. Many are out of work, and unsure of how they are going to keep food on their tables. The lines for food banks are increasing and having access to healthy food is sometimes impossible. If you are able to help, organize a food drive to help others who might be facing food shortages in your area.