The Poor Get Diabetes; The Rich Get Local and Organic


root - Posted on 26 May 2008

From the War on Poverty to new farmers' markets, a food
expert tackles America's dangerous dietary split.

by Mark Winne/Beacon Press.

Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of
Plenty.

As a class, lower income people have been well
represented in some of the best-covered food stories of
our day, particularly hunger, obesity, and diabetes. As
these issues have faded in and out of the public's eye
over the last 25 years, another food trend was rapidly
becoming a national obsession -- namely, local and
organic.

At about the same time that Berkeley diva Alice Waters
was first showing us how to bestow style and grace on
something as ordinary as a local tomato, the Reagan
administration's anti-poor policies were driving an
unprecedented number of people into soup kitchens and
food banks. And as organic food advocates were putting
the finishing touches on what was to become the first
national standard for organic food, supermarket chains
were nailing plywood across their city store windows
bidding farewell to lower income America.

Organic food and agriculture had barely climbed out of
the bassinet in 1989 when 60 Minutes ran its now famous
Alar story. The exposure it received before 40 million
television viewers ignited a firestorm of consumer
reaction that eventually made organic food the fastest
growing segment of the U.S. food industry.

Yuppie families reacted first. Like every parent since
time immemorial, these parents wanted what was best for
their children, and the emerging evidence that our food
supply was tainted accelerated their desire for the
healthiest and safest food possible. Though the research
surrounding the health and safety attributes of various
foods remained foggy, competing claims opened up a never
ending number of consumer options. One's food choices
may be vegetarian, vegan, organic, grass-fed, free-
range, humanely raised, or some combination of these. As
to the source of this food, it could range from
"generally local when it's easy to get" to "obsessively
local and will eat nothing else."

In low-income circles, however, such food anxieties got
little traction. Between getting to a food store where
the bananas weren't black and having enough money to buy
any food at all, low-income shoppers had little
inclination to parse the differences between grass-fed
and grass-finished. But this didn't imply that their
awareness of organic food was non-existent, nor did it
mean that low-income consumers were less likely to buy
organic if they had the chance.

Low-Income Shoppers Speak

To better understand a variety of issues, the Hartford
Food System, a Connecticut-based non-profit organization
that I directed for 24 years, would often meet with low-
income families to get their point of view. On one such
occasion, we asked eight members of Hartford's
Clay/Arsenal neighborhood to discuss local and organic
food. Like other impoverished urban neighborhoods,
Clay/Arsenal was entirely devoid of good quality food
stores, and their residents experienced hunger, obesity,
and diabetes at rates that were two to three times the
national average. This group was comprised exclusively
of Hispanic and African American residents.

First off, the group expressed an immediate consensus
that fresh, inexpensive food -- the food they generally
preferred -- was unavailable in their neighborhood.
Everyone agreed that traveling to a full-line
supermarket was a hassle because it required one or two
long bus rides or an expensive taxi fare. As a result,
they did their major shopping once or twice a month, and
when they shopped, price was their most important
consideration.

When asked what the word organic meant to them, the
residents answered "real food," "natural," "healthy,"
and "you know what's in it." While they believed that
organic food was preferable to food they described as
"processed," "full of chemicals," or "toxic," they said
that buying organic food wasn't even an option, because
it was simply not available to them. One young woman
made a point of saying that she didn't trust the
environment where she lived or the food she ingested.
"Everything gives you cancer these days," she said.
Conversely, there was an underlying tone of confidence
in the safety and healthfulness of food that they could
identify as local and organic.

Their awareness of the benefits of local and organic
food was very high. For the elderly, there was the
nostalgic association with tastes, places, and times
gone by. For those with young children, there was an
apprehension that nearly everything associated with
their external environment, including food, was a
threat. Like parents of all races, education levels, and
occupations, these moms wanted what was best for their
children as well, even when they knew that what was best
was not available to them.

Local and Organic Go Mainstream

"In a burst of new interest in food," spouted Newsweek's
2006 food issue, "Americans are demanding -- and paying
for -- the freshest and least chemically treated
products available." Whole Foods' John Mackey told the
Wall Street Journal, "The organic-food lifestyle is not
a fad ... It's a value system, a belief system. It's
penetrating into the mainstream."

As we cast our eye over the sheer effulgence of American
food, there appears to be no limit to the type and
number of food products for those who are motivated by
taste, environmental concern, animal welfare, political
correctness, or simple virtue. Niman Ranch produces a
pork to die for, and costs significantly more than the
factory-farmed alternative. Don't want to spend the
"best four years of your life" eating swill from the
college cafeteria trough? Select from any of hundreds of
colleges and universities that are now featuring
"sustainable dining" (some inspired by master chef Alice
Waters). And when you just can't find anything that
satisfies your organic lifestyle where you live, you can
always pack up and leave. The New York Times style page
featured a number of families who had the financial
wherewithal to escape from New York City to the Hudson
River valley. Once there, the families "began eating
strictly organic foods." One couple said they had moved
because the wife was pregnant with their second child
and "we decided that the children needed to be in
nature."

Sounds pretty good. In fact, it just may be the latest
incarnation of the American dream. But what about those
who can't escape or afford to eat "strictly organic" or
for whom "buying local" means the past-code date,
packaged baloney at the neighborhood bodega? How do we
fulfill the desire for healthy and sustainably produced
food that is increasingly shared by all?

There are two general directions that have shown promise
in closing this food gap: one is through private,
largely non-profit projects and the other is through
public policy. At the Hartford Food System we founded
the Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Farm that made an explicit commitment to distribute
about 40 percent of its local and organic produce to the
city's low-income community. Using a hybrid method of
funding, CSAs like the Holcomb Farm (Just Food in New
York City and the Western Massachusetts Food Bank in
Hadley are other examples) have been organized around
the country to ensure that CSAs are not solely the
province of a white, bright elite. Other models like the
People's Grocery in Oakland are using mobile markets to
bring high quality, healthy food into communities that
are underserved by supermarkets.

Public policy advocacy has leveraged federal and state
funding to provide special farmers' market vouchers to
low-income women, children, and elders (Farmers Market
Nutrition Program). These small denomination coupons
have opened an increasing share of the nation's 4,500
farmers' markets to a wider demographic of shoppers.
Along the same lines, a small but steady stream of
farmers' markets are installing swipe card machines to
enable food stamp recipients to use their electronic
benefit transfer (EBT) cards to buy local food. And in
what might be the biggest breakthrough yet, the national
Women, Infant, and Children Program (WIC) will be
implementing a new fruit and vegetable program that is
potentially worth hundreds of million dollars to lower
income consumers and local farmers.

While it may be some time before we see a Whole Foods
open in East Harlem, non-profit organizations like the
Philadelphia-based Food Trust have secured millions of
dollars in state financing to develop food stores in
underserved urban and rural Pennsylvania communities. As
part of an overall economic development strategy, these
stores are not only providing new sources of healthy and
affordable food to low-income families, they are also
expanding employment opportunities and the local
property tax base.

These projects and policies have inched us closer to
bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots, but
unless every segment of society rejects the notion that
there is one food system for the poor, and one for
everyone else, these gains will remain marginal.

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