"Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert."
April 19, 2012 1:38 AM   Subscribe

The food desert has been a regular topic here on MetaFilter, posts about which often highlight a particular narrative about the effects of meager food choices for poorer urban communities, negatively affecting health and choice among low income people. Though not always. Some new studies indicate the situation in the US might be more like the latter, not quite as dire as is usually asserted.

"two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents."

As usual, it 's complicated.
posted by 2N2222 (63 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This article is pretty poorly researched and bizarrely specifically critical of Michelle Obama. By claiming food deserts are "an article of faith" at the very beginning, it makes a claim that is completely untrue. It goes on to say that "it is unclear how the idea took hold that poor urban neighborhoods were food deserts" and it may be unclear to our hapless reporter, but even Wikipedia knows the answer to that particular mystery.

The studies referenced by the NYT article are not arguing that food deserts do not exist, nor are they arguing that food deserts are not related to the affluence of a neighbourhood. They are arguing that food deserts don't correlate with rates of obesity in schoolchildren, which is a counterintuitive but not contradictory claim.

I agree that "more grocery stores" is an absurd approach to fighting obesity. But it's typical of the contemporary policy environment that approaches which might possibly justify subsidizing business are the first to be evaluated.
posted by mek at 1:49 AM on April 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

By claiming food deserts are "an article of faith" at the very beginning, it makes a claim that is completely untrue.

Oh come on mek.

The narrative that poor people - due to cost or availability - are only offered unhealthy fast food by rapacious corporate entities profiting from the misery of obesity they inflict on the underclass is not an unfamiliar storyline. I do not know this qualifies as an "article of faith" but it is certainly a point of view (USDA, pdf) dearly held and defended by a lot of people (PBS video.) Including Michele Obama. (US Centers for Disease Control, pdf). The "new studies" say that what is untrue is the narrative.

I mean hey there's a Pathmark selling fresh vegetables in Camden, New Jersey. What more do you want?
posted by three blind mice at 2:43 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are 80,000 people in Camden, so yeah there are some grocery stores.

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,”

And those miles can be a long, long way if you work two jobs and don't have a car.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:48 AM on April 19, 2012 [38 favorites]

Given how horrid American public transportation tends to be, yeah, what furiousxgeorge said.

Anecdotally, when I lived in Washington, DC there were smaller mom-and-pop stores in the lower middle class areas. Usually, they a) didn't sell fresh produce or b) marked up the prices pretty significantly.

So it's not as simple as McDonald's makes poor kids fat, but this article doesn't change my opinion that poor people in American face various institutional hurdles when it comes to eating a reasonably healthy and well balanced diet.

And it's not like the big grocery stores that can offer cheap produce are evil, there simply isn't a profit motive for them when they can open up a nice new shiny box deep in the car-commuting 'burbs.

(Don't get me started on west Baltimore.)
posted by bardic at 3:05 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdata! I live in a very poor urban neighborhood. It has, yes, several grocery stores. Some don't sell produce. Some sell produce that is so bruised and rotten it's not even worth it to comb trying to find a good one. None sell a decent variety of fruits and vegetables. (And I'm not talking about papayas and daikons, here.) For a long time I was making regular trips to Whole Foods (an hour on the subway each way -- works okay if you have no kids...).

There's a great food co-op about a mile and a half away from me. It's tough to walk a mile and a half with a week's worth of groceries. Tougher if you've got kids.
posted by Jeanne at 3:23 AM on April 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Few of my students from food deserts are obese. Even fewer maintain diets that any reasonable observer would describe as "healthful".
posted by MetalFingerz at 3:38 AM on April 19, 2012

Still, I'm glad the NYT and the RAND Corporation are fighting the good fight against increased access to fresh produce for relatively poor neighborhoods.
posted by MetalFingerz at 3:46 AM on April 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

I don't think you can dismiss these studies just because you have a hunch they're wrong. I'm inclined to believe them unless there's stronger evidence to the contrary.
posted by gyp casino at 4:00 AM on April 19, 2012

I made it through almost the entire intro thinking the topic was on the food dessert.

I'll see myself out now.
posted by WhitenoisE at 4:01 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

We tried. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Those wily poors just don't listen to reason. Even when you sit one down and explain to them how good they have it, they nod off! They're just lazy. I even saw one drive off in an new Escalade!
posted by narcoleptic at 4:05 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Getting groceries even in a "nice" neighborhood in Chicago can be a major undertaking if you don't have a car and especially if you don't have anyone to help you carry them, it can only be worse in neighborhoods where the stores are fewer and further between and the walk is more treacherous. And public transportation is worse than useless for grocery shopping purposes. You do end up eating a lot of convenience store food, if not fast food, just because you're too tired to do anything else.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:12 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Grocery stores are not created equal; the NYT article mentions a Save-a-Lot in it. Save-a-Lot is part of the SuperValu group of grocery companies and their method, which is not uncommon, is spelled out on their website:

At SUPERVALU®, we are constantly fine-tuning our grocery retail offerings to make sure we have the best formats, product categories and value to respond to the needs of each store’s neighborhood. Our blend of hard discount, traditional supermarkets and price superstores provides our shoppers with options that are right for them.

In Canada, we have Loblaw's and Sobey's out East which operate under a number of different brands in different places. These companies do realize savings by buying in bulk, however they also realize savings by pricing inferior produce and meat in poorer neighbourhoods at lower prices. They also wholesale to a number of the local, independent grocers, where they receive stuff that Loblaw's either won't or can't sell and they resell in poor, downtown areas. Much of this stuff is right at or right before its expiry point, which is why you often find mouldy produce in small grocers. These grocers don't have the might to get the prices they need to sell in their neighbourhoods, and the chains can pull produce that's nearly bad and still sell it. It's win win for everyone except the customers who receive nearly bad produce...poorer folks.

This maximizes the operation of their supply chain (cutting down on waste by not offering premium product in places it likely won't be bought as fast)

If you want to do an experiment with this, take two stores operated by one of these chains in affluent and poor neighborhoods and go look at the meat expiry dates. They're going to be different, and often in poor neighbourhoods, the meat will be frozen to prevent it from going bad faster.

If you want to do another experiment, pick the worst produce you can at the supermarket you shop at. You know, the stuff you usually pass up to get to the nice, round tomatoes. Take a look at the lot of it, realize that this is still going to be sold to someone, and then try to gauge how readily you will want to eat produce that looks like that. Chances are, your appetite for that garden salad just went down significantly.

Welcome to the life of the poor grocery store shopper.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 4:15 AM on April 19, 2012 [15 favorites]

Incidentally, this isn't the only thing related to obesity that poor people are boxed out of. Off the top of my head:

- Education in nutrition is not offered in many schools where the curriculum is bare boned;
- Education in the basics of cooking is not offered in many schools where the curriculum is bare boned;
- Parents who work 2+ jobs/take public transit do not have the time to cook for their kids or teach them how to cook for the future (and may not know how themselves anyways);
- Gyms are not readily available in poor neighbourhoods and even if they were, they're a luxury most can't afford;
- Sure you could go for a walk, but most poor neighbourhoods are significantly less safe on the sidewalk;
- Medications that many Americans use to battle obesity-related illnesses are not available, due to lack of/substandard Pharmacare;

So with no education in why, no availability of the what, no ability to how either the input or the output options for fighting obesity, it's no wonder that poor people have a tough time staying healthy.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 4:28 AM on April 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

My car broke down recently and took longer than expected to get repaired--it's ancient, and the first time they ordered the part they got the wrong one. It made me very, very aware that in my neighborhood, which is close to what passes for transit around here and in an urban area, I would not be able to go grocery shopping without either a friend with a car or at *least* four hours to spend on the process and no desire to return home with frozen food still frozen.

And that is, actually, yes, to get to a Savealot; to get to the grocery store I usually go to would be even more complicated. Their produce, to be frank, is revolting. Even with a car and a student schedule, the drive to the decent grocery store is inconveniently long, which I know cuts back how much fresh produce I get because I know I don't want to shop that often.

Meanwhile, with easy walking distance and delivery, I could have a number of different pizza places, Popeye's, Church's, one Chinese place, and three convenience stores.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:29 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone who posts in this thread should have to list how far they live from a grocery store, and the approx weight they carry in groceries.

I'm about 3 or 4 US blocks from the shops, and carry anywhere from 1-15 k of groceries on foot. Usually my three-year-old comes along. It is a huge pain in the hindquarters sometimes, and I have the luxury of working from home, so I can go literally whenever I feel like it.
posted by dubold at 4:30 AM on April 19, 2012

As another indication about the sort of place you're going, Savealot's website includes a list of meals that can be prepared for 4 people for under $5. This is one of their dinner options. Here's another. I'm not precisely convinced that this is saying much for the availability of affordable healthy food.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:35 AM on April 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for those links, gracedissolved, but wtf is Skillet Master Cheeseburger Macaroni? That, with a tin of corn, some ground beef and some biscuits? For dinner for four? wow.
posted by marienbad at 5:01 AM on April 19, 2012

"Some tallied food outlets per 1,000 residents, which made densely populated urban areas appear to have fewer places per person to buy food. "

Apparently the author has never actually stepped inside a crowded, urban grocery and they certainly have never waited in line in one for 20-30 minutes to buy the last scraggly head of lettuce from a bare shelf. Per capita doesn't matter? That is some f-ed up, sheltered logic.

Grocery stores on the border between gentrified and poorer neighborhoods in DC actually have dudes hocking their hack cab services on the sidewalk.
posted by Skwirl at 5:03 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

The "new studies" say that what is untrue is the narrative.

Right, sorry, I forgot we weren't supposed to let science get in the way of knocking down those big scary straw men.
posted by mek at 5:11 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The worst food deserts I've seen have been in places like rural West Virginia. Walmart was literally the only place I could get decent food. It's funny because it was the little independent stores there that sold the worst of the worst food. They are the ones who probably couldn't take the losses from perishable produce turnover and general unpopularity of "health" foods in the region.
posted by melissam at 5:14 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have any of the people here ever been even close to poor, had kids, and shopped for groceries? Yeah there are fresh fruits and veggies, but often they cost more, a lot more than other food, and when you only have so much money to feed your kids and they won't eat a lot of that stuff anyhow, you tend to go for the macaroni and cheese in a box and the canned tuna for tuna noddle casserole. Especially if you are young as well as poor and not especially savvy about nutrition. And there may be some nice upscale stores and restaurants in your neighborhood, but you can't afford to go there, especially not with the kids. Add to that it is not safe to let your kids go out and play, you can't afford teams and lessons, and you work long hours and do not have a lot of time to cook. So the kids get fat.
posted by mermayd at 5:14 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, the only real grocery store in the neighborhood where I grew up was remarkably terrible. Like rotten vegetables, poor service, dirty, terrible. There were a few neighborhood bodegas, but the biggest one is probably a good half mile or more from the Safeway, which is actually quite far with groceries, so no comparison shopping. It was only once property values on townhouses soared to 700k and a Metro stop was put in that a Harris Teeter (still right around one of the area's worst drug corners) and a fancy new Giant were installed. The difference in availability, accessibility, and prices is still incredible. I just can't hate on programs that try to make fresh vegetables cheaper and more accessible, or that help teach cooking classes, or whatever.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:35 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marienbad, it's knockoff Hamburger Helper.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:44 AM on April 19, 2012

As someone who eats both healthy and unhealthy food, I disagree that eating healthy is necessarily expensive. I wonder if stores like Whole Foods are creating these misconceptions. If you go to a regular grocery store, two dollars will buy you literally pounds of rice and beans and vegetables.
posted by gyp casino at 5:47 AM on April 19, 2012

If you go to a regular grocery store, two dollars will buy you literally pounds of rice and beans and vegetables.

I don't know where you live but I'm jealous. 2 dollars wouldn't buy pounds of any of those individually, let alone all three.
posted by inigo2 at 5:50 AM on April 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

I had to google Hamburger Helper. So its Macaroni that tastes like Cheeseburger?

It seems that in England there are supermarkets almost everywhere, and they open till 10 or midnight in some places. Are there any similarities with the US in this area?
posted by marienbad at 5:52 AM on April 19, 2012

@indigo2 The price of broccoli and rice and carrots are usually between $1-2 per pound. Bananas should be about $0.20 each.
posted by gyp casino at 5:54 AM on April 19, 2012

If you go to a regular grocery store, two dollars will buy you literally pounds of rice and beans and vegetables.

White rice and canned vegetables maybe. The actually healthy rice and the fresh veggies full of nutrients and fibre, no way. Plus, a balanced and healthy diet is not just the same three items over and over again, even if they're all individually healthy.

Plus, you've ignored the cost of actually making that bowl taste good (spices, stocks, sauces), not to mention the fact that you actually need to know how to cook beans so they don't harm you and how to make rice that's edible. Those skills are not innate.

So yes, you can eat a largely unhealthy bowl of beans, white rice and canned veggies for two bucks, sure. That's not the fix to this problem, though.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 5:58 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well your math doesn't work then, gyp casino. 1 pound of each would cost $3 minimum. How far would that go with a family of 4?

(For those who work in kilos - 1 lb = .45 kg. Thanks Google.)
posted by marienbad at 5:59 AM on April 19, 2012

If you go to a regular grocery store, two dollars will buy you literally pounds of rice and beans and vegetables.

Like Wegman's, say? $2 will not buy a pound of tomatoes at my local Wegman's, let alone pounds and pounds of rice and beans or anything else. It might buy you about four potatoes, though. (The two sitting on my counter cost over $1.) Produce is a bit cheaper at the Walmart, although it also tends to die more quickly once you get it home.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:01 AM on April 19, 2012

Some tallied food outlets per 1,000 residents, which made densely populated urban areas appear to have fewer places per person to buy food.

Appear? Tallying per capita food outlets should actually show food outlets per capita.

A better methodology would look at cost/time per pound of food, including everything needed for a healthy diet. This would give a much better idea of how hard it is to obtain food in different circumstances. For example, paying $5 and spending 1 hour on public transport to obtain 15 lbs of groceries (and possibly a worse ratio in order to get somewhere with good produce) versus a 20 minute drive spending $2 on gas to get 50 lbs of groceries at a place with great selection.

The idea that food deserts don't exist because there are some stores everywhere misses the point that grocery availability is widely different in different areas due to both the availability and type of store and the typical resources available to the residents.
posted by snofoam at 6:10 AM on April 19, 2012

At my grocery stores, white rice and brown rice are the same price. I have a big bag of brown rice that cost me a few bucks that I've been using for months now. And one dollar buys about 2-3 helpings of veggies. Chicken breast is more but only about $4 for a big breast that lasts about three meals. All in all it's about $2-3 per meal. Bread and eggs are really cheap too. Anything you buy at McDonalds is at significant markup. With groceries, you could make your own Egg McMuffin for less than one dollar.
posted by gyp casino at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2012

There seems to be a lot of info about the study that isn't in the article, so I can't really gauge if it's as wrong-headed as it seems. Because looking at this, I wonder, was there any attempt to evaluate whether a grocery store carried produce? Or what prices it was at? In my Brooklyn neighborhood, we have a number of large grocery stores that carry nothing fresh at all.

And mellisam has an excellent point: There are plenty of rural areas that are just as lacking in healthy food options, and where it's much harder to get anything good than in urban areas with public transport. But because those are pockets of rural poverty, and most reformers are based in and therefore notice urban areas, they get overlooked.

But... Yes, grocery stores won't solve the problem any more than posting calorie counts will. Necessary but not sufficient.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2012

gyp casino, I do think it is important to remember that some groceries can be inexpensive, so it's good that you brought that up. The fact that the pricing in your area seems to be so different than what others experience definitely underlines the fact that not everyone has equal access to cheap groceries. At the end of the day, though, the price you pay for a bag of rice doesn't really do anything to show that in some areas it can be hard to access good, affordable groceries.

Also, I don't think that a bag of rice that lasts months is the most convincing example. Either the bag is gigantic, or you don't eat rice that much. In my fridge there's a tiny jar of capers that I've been using for two years.
posted by snofoam at 6:32 AM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm waiting for the inevitable metafilter comment that says you can feed eight people on 25c per day using only a hot plate and a blender, so why would poor people eat fast food?

I see we're on our way.
posted by desjardins at 6:37 AM on April 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

I grew up in a family of twenty children, and my single, unwed, unemployed mother fed us all on a steady diet of turnips that rained from the sky every fortnight. If she could do that, I don't understand why all these poor people in urban areas can't get fresh food at prices from 1973.
posted by griphus at 7:10 AM on April 19, 2012 [20 favorites]

Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their consequences. [USDA 2009] [PDF]

Access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households. Results indicate that some consumers are constrained in their ability to access affordable nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. Three pieces of evidence corroborate this conclusion:

• Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2 percent of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.
• Area-based measures of access show that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of Federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.
However, not all of these 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.
• Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend signifi cantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes).

However, 93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove. These distance and time-based measures are national estimates that do not consider differences between rural and urban areas in terms of distance, travel patterns, and retail market coverage.

• Supermarkets and large grocery stores have lower prices than smaller stores.
• Low-income households shop where food prices are lower, when they can.
• Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.
posted by Fizz at 7:34 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, fizz. It would seem that there are millions of Americans who find it significantly more difficult to access grocery stores, even before considering store quality, pricing and other relevant factors like size and reliability of refrigerator/freezer, etc
posted by snofoam at 7:57 AM on April 19, 2012

I live in a neighborhood where the nearest anything (other than of course the obligatory neighborhood Baptist church) is over a mile away in any direction. The Mapco that's down the road (which sells all kinds of nutritious, healthy stuff) is closer than the Kroger. I'm in relatively good health and could walk to that grocery store if I wanted to. If I weren't in good health, I'd be screwed. If what I'm living in isn't a food desert, I don't know what a food desert is.
posted by blucevalo at 8:12 AM on April 19, 2012

And one dollar buys about 2-3 helpings of veggies.

People talk like this, but I've never experienced it to be actually true. A dollar can buy 2-3 servings of (some) canned vegetables. It will not buy you even an entire serving of most fresh vegetables, it might buy you an entire bell pepper, although that's not really a meal. It will buy you potatoes, it won't really buy you any fruit other than bananas.

The "you can buy rice and veggies for a buck!" crowd seems to subsist entirely on rice and beans, which is healthier than subsisting entirely on Doritos, but it's not especially healthy.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:48 AM on April 19, 2012

Having grown up in the "inner city" I can testify to the fact that not all grocery stores are created equal.

Poor produce, dusty packaged items, dirty floors, strange looking meat, and a bad smell to the store were common traits of the grocery stores that catered primarily to poor black people in South Florida during the 80s. And this was at chains and smaller operations alike.

Whenever we could do so, we went to the "white" grocery stores, as we called them. The distance and the risk of racist treatment were outweighed by the quality, cost, and diversity of the products available.

It's a sign of how prosperous my current home city of Austin is compared to where I grew up that the stores that everyone here, minorities included, calls the "ghetto $chainstorename" are far, far better than the ghetto stores I remember from my youth.
posted by lord_wolf at 9:39 AM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

• Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity.

This. No one on this thread seems to be acknowledging the possibility that no matter how much food deserts may or may not be a factor in determining the level of healthful eating in one's diet the factor of choice may be trumping all other considerations. Given the choice between food(or rather edible food-like substances as Michael Pollan calls them) that has been engineered to have the optimal levels of salt, sugar, and fat for maximum desirability and fresh produce, dairy, meat, i.e. unprocessed foods on the perimeter of the grocery store, that require more time, effort and skill to make delicious, most people, regardless of class, are going to choose the former over the latter. That's why Big Agro is so big. Changing the farm bill, subsidizing corn and soy less and fresh produce more, edible school yards, cooking classes in schools, more food education, changing our whole speed obsessed culture to make more time to cook and eat(yeah, right), these are the things that need to inform choice in those instances when there is greater access.
posted by umamiman at 10:22 AM on April 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

umamiman: First, eponysterical. Second, I don't think anyone is blaming the entire problem on grocery availability. I do think that many people in this thread are voicing objections to studies that incorrectly minimize the problem of finding good food. I also think that saying there are bigger problems, while true, can also be used to downplay the issue of food availability. The existence of other, bigger problems does nothing to help the problem of food availability.
posted by snofoam at 10:53 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The existence of other, bigger problems does nothing to help the problem of food availability.

You don't think that increased education and awareness could increase demand and therefore have an effect on the access issue?
posted by umamiman at 10:58 AM on April 19, 2012

I think those things are also factors, umamiman, but the food desert problem is usually brought up in relation to the fact that poor people are overwhelmingly more obese than rich people. And yet, even if those rich kids go to public schools and learn the same non-information about food, even if they drive around with fast food places everywhere, they still don't end up fat like poor people. And I grew up poor, went to public schools, never had cooking classes, etc--but when I have money? I buy good food and cook and join a CSA and eat lots of fresh stuff because I like it. But I didn't do that while I was making $8/hr, because it wasn't feasible. I still wanted those things when I was poor, but they weren't, in terms of cost or location, available to me.

Not that those other things aren't issues, things that need fixing, whatever. But dismissing access, to me, implies that poor people are somehow less smart than rich people, so that if green beans were the same per-calorie price as Coke, they'd still buy exclusively Coke. I don't agree with subsidizing Coke, but I'm not an idiot, I know that vegetables are healthy. Knowing that is useless if you can't get them even if you want them.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't think that increased education and awareness could increase demand and therefore have an effect on the access issue?

Sure, that is possible. I guess I didn't express myself correctly. I agree with your previous comment in general and certainly there are a great many things that need to be changed between the world we live in and a world where people eat relatively healthy food. You definitely name many of these things.

All I am really saying is that depending on the context, it is possible that people can use these totally important things to deliberately minimize the importance of food availability. They are essentially distracting attention from one problem by pointing to another. Doing that hurts the prospect of ever addressing food availability.

A somewhat analogous situation would be a low-income community complaining about air pollution because a municipal bus terminal is located there rather than in a wealthy community. Someone could probably come in and say that the level of cigarette smoking in that community actually poses a greater health risk, so that's the real problem we should focus on. They would only be half right, though. And if they said it merely to distract from the bus terminal pollution, they're really just trying to avoid addressing a problem versus genuinely caring about overall health.

To be clear, I'm not saying that you're doing that, but I think some of the studies and spokespeople in the article are.
posted by snofoam at 11:10 AM on April 19, 2012

Also, as much as it would never happen, if the issue of food deserts were addressed directly, like a subsidy or tax break for stores that sell healthy food in areas that qualify as food deserts, I think it would probably be a more effective way to address the specific problem of food availability than general education about healthy eating. Although, like I said, a direct program would be very complicated and would probably never happen.
posted by snofoam at 11:17 AM on April 19, 2012

Everyone who posts in this thread should have to list how far they live from a grocery store, and the approx weight they carry in groceries.

Okay. Let's pretend I don't have a car. I live in a safe neighborhood somewhere in this zip code. There are three chain grocery stores within 4 miles of me. They're pretty much right next to each other. The actual bus ride is about 20-30 minutes each way, but you're likely to wait 10-20 minutes for each bus. So, anywhere from an hour to an hour and 40 minutes roundtrip (they're 20 minutes roundtrip by car). I can carry maybe 20 lbs on a very good day, but I will be in pain after that. (I know this because my cat weighs 20 lbs and I screw up my back every time I pick him up.) If I didn't have my husband to help me carry stuff, it would be a huge burden.

There are two smaller stores that are only about a mile away. One is a coop like Whole Foods, and it's extremely pricy. The other is an independently owned place that specializes in wine/beer and meat. Hardly any produce. Given that we have the luxury of a car, we shop at a huge employee-owned place about 8 miles away.
posted by desjardins at 11:58 AM on April 19, 2012

I've worked in one poor area where produce was really terrible. The interesting bit is that it's not just that the produce is beat up and wilted and stale, but that even when it has a good outward appearance, it just doesn't taste nearly as good as produce from decent brooklyn stores, WF, etc. I'm sure wholesale distributors know exactly how good or bad a particular batch is, and it probably depends on many factors like where it was grown, how it was ripened, how long it was stored and at what temperatures, etc.

I've noticed this with apples, bananas, romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes (once you try good quality grapes from WF, you just can't eat regular grocery stuff!), peaches, carrots, and even brown rice and lentils.

I've also lived in another poor area that had at least 3 supermarkets with large produce sections, as well as about 4-5 smaller groceries with produce. Only one of the three had organic produce and it was mostly packaged in a way that made it very pricy (e.g. 4 apples for $6 when you can usually buy a single organic apple from WF for $1.10 or so), and it was limited in selection and usually stale and I suspect the store was losing money on it because people just would not buy it, because it was expensive and because people who want decent organic food will just drive a longish way off to a farmer's market or WF. Eventually, that store phased out their organic food.

I think the issue is that distributors and stores will always find a way to offer lower quality foods to poorer areas. Food quality is very tough to regulate because of the issues I mentioned, and because produce usually doesn't even have an expiration date, it's just lying around until it gets too wilted or stale or rotten and then it's thrown out.

I don't get the backlash against the ideas for cheap healthy meals, I think it's a fascinating topic and it should be a part of the discussion. Back when I was broke, I would have LOVED to know what I now know about whipping up a cheap, filling meal. I think the most practical cheap sources of protein are lentils, frozen edamame beans and brown rice. You can almost ignore their price because 80-90% of the price of a meal will come from vegetables and fruits, anyway.

If I was trying to eat on the cheap, a typical meal for me would probably be: 15 cents worth of lentils, $1 in whatever vegetables are on sale at the moment, and 10-15 cents in good finishing olive oil, and an organic banana for $.50 or an organic apple for $1.10. That adds up to $1.80-2.40. Foods that I currently enjoy but would have to cut out: salads, nuts (or limit them to a couple almonds a day!), cereals, dried fruits, expensive sweets (I would have to bake my own cookies).
posted by rainy at 12:01 PM on April 19, 2012

I would definitely miss grapes, mangoes, young coconuts, expensive chocolate, organic milk and half-and-half!
posted by rainy at 12:09 PM on April 19, 2012

Now that I think about it, there aren't any fast food places that are CLOSER to my house than a grocery store (Starbucks and Subway, if you count those). Wendy's and Arby's are about the same distance; McD's is even further away.

Now y'all can triangulate my location.
posted by desjardins at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2012

I don't get the backlash against the ideas for cheap healthy meals, I think it's a fascinating topic and it should be a part of the discussion.

People don't hate cheap, healthy meals. Basically whenever there is a topic like this on mefi, people will chime in about their frugal meals, even if it is not relevant. Also, people sometimes use this to say that it's poor people's fault if they don't eat healthily, when in fact there can also be a variety of factors that make it more difficult for them to do so.

In this thread, I would say that the "I can make a meal for a dollar" comments are tangential to the actual topic.
posted by snofoam at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if some unhealthy eating habits are due to a resigned version of a carpe diem philosophy; i.e. "I'm poor so I'm going to die young anyway, might as well live while I can." I also think the fact that many people eat to soothe stress is underrepresented in these studies. I'm perfectly aware that broccoli is better for me than ice cream, but if I've had a bad day, damnit I'm going to have my ice cream. If I'm poor, I've likely had a much longer string of bad days.

Also also, I think disability is underrepresented as a cause of unhealthy eating habits. My husband and I have both been dealing with chronic pain lately, and although we have money and time, we've been subsisting on frozen pizza and Chinese delivery. I hope to God our situations aren't long-term, but I'm not sure what we'll do if they are. Never mind the cooking, just getting the kitchen clean enough in order to cook is a major undertaking. We're right on the edge of hiring a cleaning person, something we could never do if we were poor.
posted by desjardins at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the conversation in these threads goes like "fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive" and then only someone pipes in with "nah I'm a jedi of cheap healthy food, listen up young-uns". And so in this thread, too, the first comments about cheap healthy food were in response to comments about expense of healthy foods.

To be fair, choices do get limited when you have smaller budgets, there's no doubt about that. It's a complex topic. But I don't see how "cheap healthy food" implies "poor people's fault", that's a bit of a reach.
posted by rainy at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2012

I wonder if some unhealthy eating habits are due to a resigned version of a carpe diem philosophy; i.e. "I'm poor so I'm going to die young anyway, might as well live while I can."

I wonder about the impact of this, too. We're not poor, but my wife has the sort of mental health issues that make more of her have more bad days than an average person in her position would have. It also makes it harder for her to think long term, and it absolutely pushes her to eating worse food than she would otherwise. Obviously, there's a difference between "I don't feel like I'm going to live that long anyway because I'm poor" and having bipolar, but I'm guessing the mechanism is similar.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:57 PM on April 19, 2012

Never mind the cooking, just getting the kitchen clean enough in order to cook is a major undertaking.

Word effin' up!

This is something that is often overlooked, I think. We're fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat healthily, and cleaning up after meals is such a massive effort that I sometimes have to keep a glass of beer or wine handy to get me through the process.

Cleaning dishes -- things too large/awkward for the dishwasher -- and surfaces majorly sucks. It would not at all surprise me to learn that avoiding clean-up and prep is a significant part of the allure of eating out, grabbing takeout, and buying pre-made meals in the frozen foods section, with just as much weight as the sugar+salt combo as a factor in people's conscious and unconscious decision-making process.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:59 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sushi is easy to make but hell to clean up after. One-pot meal like lentils + vegies + olive oil is very easy to clean up. In fact, that reminds me that the kind of pot you use can make a lot of difference to clean up. The great thing about enameled cast iron pots is you often don't even need to use soap or sponges, just leave the meal there for 5 minutes, put it on a plate and fill the pot with hot water, then, rinse and wipe it a few times and it's good. Steel pots I have are a lot more trouble - you need to use both soap and sponge to clean it well enough, and it's not rounded at the bottom so it's harder to clean, too.
posted by rainy at 1:31 PM on April 19, 2012

But I don't see how "cheap healthy food" implies "poor people's fault", that's a bit of a reach.

It doesn't always imply that, but in the US it's one of a bunch of arguments that is sometimes used by people who don't believe the government should help poor people have a more equal chance of success.

I'm sure you don't mean it that way, but some people will argue that because it's possible to cook a meal for less than a meal at McDonald's, the thing that keeps poor people from achieving is not systemic inequality, but just that poor people are lazy, and therefore deserve to stay poor, overweight or whatever.

In a thread that is about whether food deserts are a significant systemic issue, I think it is natural to have this usage in mind for anyone who has some knowledge of/interest in US politics and social policy.
posted by snofoam at 2:41 PM on April 19, 2012

I don't disagree.

I think if you start at some level, let's say $10-15 per person per day, you can buy anything that appeals to you, is healthy and convenient to cook. As you subtract from that amount, one dollar at a time, you have less and less choice, so you have to pick between your taste preferences, healthiness, convenience (in terms of how long and complicated it is to cook and cleanup after the meal). When you're cooking for children, it's often hard to get them to eat anything healthy, so if you're stuck at a low budget, and they refuse the very few healthy options, you might have no other choice than really unhealthy ones.

Having some leeway in budget means that even if you're having a tough day and don't have the energy to make a proper meal, you can throw together something still quite healthy, albeit expensive, like a bowl of organic milk, low sugar cereal, organic nuts, greek strained yogurt with mango, honey.
posted by rainy at 3:44 PM on April 19, 2012

When I was in my teens, my house at one point contained 15 people, all living on 2 people's income. It was difficult. We had a large vehicle, so we could get to the grocery store, and one adult was unemployed (though disabled), so there was time to go to the store. We did at least half our shopping at SaveALot.

Canned vegetables are not only less nutritious than fresh, they are usually less tasty as well, which means kids won't eat them. But when you can get 8 cans of green beans for $2, you do that, because it's better than not having green beans at all.

My parents tried very hard to make nutritious dinners for us. But with limited resources, a lot of the time we resorted to boxed meals and casseroles, because that's what we could get, and that's what the kids would eat.

All the food I ate came from the food my parents bought, or the free school lunch we got (pizza, breaded "chicken" sandwiches, and french fries). And by the time I left high school, I was 50 pounds overweight. Because what we could afford wasn't good food.

I don't know about food deserts, because I've never been unfortunate enough to live in one. But there is a general scarcity of cheap, healthy food for low income families. And if you want to talk about the price of dried beans and rice, also talk about the person who works 8 hours a day and then has to walk/take transit an hour each way from work.
posted by Night_owl at 8:58 PM on April 19, 2012

One issue that really upsets me is that smaller sized packages of food stuffs are now more expensive than the larger ones. I don't need Costco/Sams Warehouse style containers of product x or product y. I just need a small amount. And I don't want to tempt myself with larger portions or more of a product that I don't need.
posted by Fizz at 8:41 AM on April 20, 2012

I have not read the article, but I want to apologize for past transgressions about my claims that you can eat well for cheap. It is hard to do with consistency, and access to good grocery stores makes a huge difference.
posted by jonbro at 2:20 AM on April 21, 2012

I think one of the biggest obstacles to fixing 'food deserts' (and frankly, most anything that affects poor people) is breaking people of the incorrect notion that the solution comes from publicly Min-Maxing like they're doing a middle school Home Ec. Project.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:41 AM on April 23, 2012

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