Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Policy Point Wednesday: Food Desert or Mirage?

As you may know, the impetus for starting this blog was to find out what foods might actually be IN a food desert, and what options people might have to prepare meals for themselves.  After creating over 50 recipes, and with plans for even more, I can conclude that it's possible to do better than a fast-food diet, even given the restrictions of a food desert (that is, if your food desert offers access to a drugstore or dollar store.)

That being said, I have no illusions that the recipes on this blog can even begin to address the problem of diet-related disease in places where food is hard to access.  "Just eat healthier" isn't that different from "just eat fresh" it's simply not possible for many Americans to do.  The Economist, in a - well, blatantly callous, if not classist - essay, points out that there is no evidence that access is the only problem in the food desert, and while I don't agree with much of what's written, I do agree that this problem is a significantly complex one, and access is a small piece of the puzzle.

Education is another issue.  Today, the New York Times wrote about reviving Home Economics classes; how this much-maligned program taught housework and cooking like any other scientific discipline.  While the article does not discuss the heavy gender bias of Home Ec classes of the past,  I believe that they are right.  We need to present nutrition, food preparation, basic household administration and care (including things like basic carpentry and electrical work as well as cleaning and cooking) as legitimate competencies to all students right along with reading, math and science.

A third issue is time: the expectations placed on many - if not most - Americans at their job (or jobs) are a huge deterrent to adopting a healthy lifestyle.  It is unreasonable to expect a parent to prepare food at all, much less healthy food, if they are working several jobs to make ends meet.  While we tend to think of poverty in this situation, the same goes for wealthier parents whose salaried positions place them "on-call" for much of the day - though at least parents with money have the option of hiring someone to do it for them.  Cooking takes planning, shopping, and preparation time: fast-food takes only the time to shop for it.  The answer is not to berate people for opting for fast-food, but to work towards just workplace policies.

Finally, and I think most importantly, we've created a culture where short-term profits are critical.  Food companies don't survive unless they are profitable.  This in turn means their focus is on changing consumer behavior, rather that responding to it.  It means creating surpluses of cheap food and then convincing us to consume it.  It means using tax dollars to increase profits and to push producers to grow what's easy, rather than what's needed.  We need a food system that serves us, rather than the other way around.

No single reform is going to bring about the end of diet-related disease; this problem is complex and affects each American in a different way.  If we concentrate all our efforts on a single solution, I doubt that we will have much effect - but if we can make some progress on all four of these fronts, I think we have a better chance to improve our nation's health.

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