Guest Post: Food Deserts by Elizabeth Murphy

Introduction

Food deserts are a major issue in the United States today. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act defines a food desert as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities” (Congress). According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), of all the households in the United States, 23.5 million (8.4%) are more than a mile from the closest supermarket and in low income neighborhoods. Furthermore, “This lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related illness, such as diabetes and heart disease” (USDA). People who do not have access to supermarkets lack the ability to procure what is now a luxury—fresh fruits and vegetables, wholesome foods, nutritious meals. The ability to purchase healthy foods should not be a luxury. It is an injustice that people are unable to buy foods that contribute to their health and well being. People living in food deserts are hungry for healthy, filling foods. Christianity is not about feeding the hungry food which is ultimately damaging to one’s overall health, but rather it is about ensuring the well-being of those in need. If people are in need of fresh produce and healthy food options they should not be denied.

Malnutrition in Food Deserts

Residents of food deserts do not go hungry. Instead, when in need of something to eat they turn to available options. Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, gas station snacks, and other so-called convenience foods are among some of the cheapest and easiest things to find in a food desert. These packaged goods contain more salt, fat, and carbohydrates than people need. This type of diet fills people up but does not keep them healthy. Because transportation to the supermarket is necessary for people living in food deserts, and fresh produce and meats at supermarkets are more expensive than alternative unhealthier options, those who lack transportation or the funds to splurge on healthy foods end up with the lower priced convenience foods. Living in a food desert in addition to living in poverty is the perfect equation to yield malnutrition. Malnutrition often combined with obesity is especially important among youth because it can severely effect the future health of growing children. As Powers and Faden state:

Compromised health in childhood also has profound effects on dimensions of well-being other than health, most notably on the potential to develop the skills necessary for reasoning…. Malnutrition in the early years can have a profound and permanent effect on brain development and cognitive capacity (Powers and Faden 93).

Malnutrition should not be an issue in a country where there are so many resources. Every person should have access to nutritious foods as a basic human right.

Catholic Social Teaching

Two themes of Catholic social teaching that relate directly to the necessity of ensuring access to nutritious foods are dignity of every person and human rights as well as the option for the poor and vulnerable. The dignity of every person says everyone has a right to life. This does not mean a life where a person is allowed to scrape by using whatever means necessary, but a life where someone has the freedom to choose what he or she gets to eat for lunch and is educated about healthy options with those options available nearby and at reasonable prices. Every person has a right to food, nutrition, and living a fulfilling life where he or she is treated with respect. Additionally, the theme of the option for the poor and vulnerable relates to the ideal that all people should have access to food and basic nutrition. Those without access to food should be given food to eat when they are hungry as an act of charity; however, for justice to prevail, a sustainable system needs to be established where people are given the opportunity to eat their fill of nutritious foods. Those starving after a natural disaster need the help provided by charitable organizations, and people living in food deserts who do not have access to vitamin- and mineral-filled foods need assistance, too. There is no reason to ignore the plight of those who live in food deserts. As the Bible says:

He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry (New International Version Psalm 146:6-7).

Those who live in food deserts, who face malnutrition, and who cannot afford nutritious foods, they need help to redesign their neighborhood. A supermarket is needed along with other places that build community and promote healthy eating such as a community garden, cooking classes, and a farmers market.

Theory of Social Justice

Although some may argue against paying immediate attention to those living in food deserts, a person’s health is one of the most important aspects of life and nutrition has a direct impact on health. It is necessary for people to have good health to maintain the ability to carry out other aspects of life. If someone is malnourished because of limited access to food, he or she will have a much harder time concentrating on work, finding leisure time, and connecting with his or her spirituality. A different theory of social justice that deals with the influences behind people’s well-being is outlined by Powers and Faden. These two public healthcare professionals look at the issues surrounding social justice and public health from a nonreligious perspective and argue that there are six dimensions of well-being that every human should have the right to in his or her life. The six dimensions are health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination. Their theory of social justice states:

Social justice is concerned with human well-being. In our view, well-being is best understood as involving plural, irreducible dimensions, each of which represents something of independent moral significance… We do claim that to the extent that human life is seriously deficient in one or more of these dimensions, it is likely that an individual is not experiencing a sufficient level of well-being (Powers and Faden 15).

Powers and Faden argue that well-being needs to be achieved for social justice to be achieved. Opponents of using Catholic social teaching as a means to understand social justice can use other theories of social justice such as the one outlined by Powers and Faden to justify the eradication of food deserts as a way to promote health and well-being. Health is of upmost moral importance when trying to narrow the gap between rich and poor and limit health inequity.

Powers and Faden’s argument for promotion of health with respect to all peoples, rich and poor alike, is similar to the point of view of the Catholic Church. In regards to the option for the poor and vulnerable, Pope Paul VI writes:

In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others (Octogesima Adveniens).

Ensuring that the rich and poor have access to healthcare, including preventative care such as nutrition classes, and establishing healthy eating habits is a way to fulfill the value of giving options to the poor and vulnerable. By paying attention to those who live in food deserts, addressing the issues and structural sins that led to the creation of food deserts, and creating opportunities for community growth and disestablishment of food deserts, society can take a step towards caring for the health aspect of well-being as well as addressing the needs of the poor.

Solutions

Kingdom House is an organization based in the near south side of St. Louis, in the heart of a food desert. The people who utilize the services offered by Kingdom House live in nearby neighborhoods, which are also located in food deserts. The USDA Food Desert Locator tool provides statistics about the census tract where Kingdom House is located. The percentage of the total population that is low-income and has low access to a large grocery store is 19.1. Kingdom House is associated with the United Methodist Church and the volunteers who work there are committed to serving others, inspired by the actions of Jesus and the words of the Bible:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (New International Version Isaiah 58:6-7)

With a commitment to Christ and serving people in need, their logo is “change begins within.” Two of their programs work to ensure that families in need are provided with food to help begin that change within.

Some of the services Kingdom House provides include a food pantry for families and dinner for the students involved in their after school program. The food pantry is stocked with nonperishable items and, once a month, families from around the neighborhood are invited to receive food. The pantry is set up so that each family is allowed to choose what they would like to receive, making the experience seem more like grocery shopping. This gives the recipients a sense of independence and, hopefully, leaves people with foods that they are excited to eat. In the after school program, kids are fed dinner each night. Parents are grateful for the food Kingdom House provides because then they have one less meal to worry about and they know their children are getting the food they need to succeed. Instead of being given the cheapest and quickest meal for dinner, the participants in the after school program receive a meal with some form of protein, grain, fruit or vegetable, and juice or milk. Each child gets an individual meal and everyone eats together in a big room cafeteria-style. The mealtime attempts to bring the kids together through food and friendship. If they do not eat at Kingdom House, most of the kids do not have a meal until breakfast the next morning. In her discussion on American eating habits and eating intentionally, Shannon Jung points out:

Cheap food, quickly prepared, thoughtlessly eaten; eating in front of the television; and solitary eating—how can these not affect our lives? Is this life abundant? Cheap food leads to unappreciative eating, obesity and poor health, attenuated relationships, and the transmission of misperceptions to our children. Rather than contributing to our delight and the enjoyment of our households, these dynamics have reduced the joy and quality of our lives (Brubaker et al 55).

Kingdom House avoids cheaply prepared, non-nutritious meals; however, after volunteering with the after school program for a year and a half, it is still disheartening to see kids who are unwilling to eat the food on their plate. The kids are usually suspicious of anything that is green. Juice is their preferred beverage and they do not like trying new foods. Kingdom House is making great strides in attempting to alleviate the immediate problem of people needing food to eat. However, other measures need to be taken to improve the nutritional status of those who live in food deserts and need somewhere to get good food.

Another organization in St. Louis that works toward providing access to healthy foods is the Old North St. Louis Grocery Co-op. The Old North St. Louis neighborhood is located in an area undergoing revitalization. Habitat for Humanity has started building houses there, crumbling redbrick buildings are being rebuilt by neighborhood residents, a Catholic Worker House is located nearby, and residents are starting to rebuild the formerly vibrant community. National Public Radio (NPR) covered the opening of the Co-op. Before the establishment of the co-op, “the neighborhood [was] chock full of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, the nearest large supermarket [was] a few miles away” (NPR). The Co-op partners with the neighborhood to provide low cost fresh produce and meats to members of the community who pay a set amount of money at the beginning of each year to belong to the Co-op and help keep it running. The Co-op is a solution to the problem of having to travel far for fresh produce because it provides the community with close, healthy food options. It also promotes a sustainable economy where local residents invest in the co-op at the beginning of each year, cooperatively own the facility, and pay discounted prices when shopping at the store. While there are several across the country, “the Old North co-op is the first of its kind in St. Louis” (NPR). With the closest supermarket a 10-minute drive away—which is much longer on public transportation—local residents can now make a quick trip to the Co-op instead of having to drive all the way to the supermarket.

Additionally, the Co-op participates in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Members of a CSA receive a basket of locally grown seasonal produce once a week through a partnership with a farmer in the area. Rebecca Todd Peters, a participant in a CSA in Kentucky, describes a CSA as “more than just a new market niche catering to urban yuppies: it is a paradigm shift away from a market-oriented and consumer-driven approach to agriculture” (23-24). Participating in a CSA helps people who live in urban areas realize where their food comes from and appreciate the idea that food brings people together to form a stronger community. Peters further reflects on her experience with a CSA by saying:

Visiting the farmer’s market and the farms where our vegetables, eggs, and flowers come from and knowing the people who cultivate these products reinforces our own commitment to enjoying ‘slow food’ as we cook together as a family and teach [our daughter] the joys of growing, harvesting, and preparing food to share with others. Food is essential for life, but it has more than instrumental value. Food can help us to stay in touch with God’s good creation (Brubaker et al 25).

The Co-op also has a community garden right in its backyard where neighborhood members are given their own plot to plant and chickens, whose eggs are sold in the store, roam free.

In addition to the co-op, the North City Farmer’s Market also provides healthy, local food options for the Old North St. Louis community. Not only can fresh vegetables and produce be bought at the market, but “the North City Farmers’ Market also offers free health screenings and health cooking demonstrations” as well as “entertainment, food samples, healthy meal recipes, and children’s activities” (onsl.org). Through activities such as the health screenings, cooking demonstrations, and recipes, the farmer’s market provides residents of Old North St. Louis with long-term benefits and solutions to healthy eating. By hosting this event each week over the summer and opening the grocery co-op, the neighborhood attempts to build a sustainable and welcoming neighborhood where healthy food can be enjoyed by all.

These initiatives advance the greater purpose of strengthening the community through serving one another. This approach is similar to the Catholic social teaching themes of solidarity, common good, and participation. In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII emphasizes the importance of all people living in community with one another with respect to the common good. He writes:

For these groups must themselves necessarily present the form and substance of a true community, and this will only be the case if they treat their individual members as human persons and encourage them to take an active part in the ordering of their lives (Mater et Magistra).

Old North St. Louis is creating a true, healthier community by treating each member with respect and encouraging neighbors to have an active role in promoting its formation. The Co-op, farmer’s market, community garden, and CSA participation all work to eliminate lack of access to healthy foods and promote community with one another.

Conclusion

Food deserts are a hindrance to proper nutrition, good health, and community building. It is an injustice that people lack the transportation, funds, or ability to purchase fresh produce and meats because they live in a low income area lacking a nearby supermarket. People living in food deserts are forced to choose more convenient, less expensive, and less healthy options, which often leads to malnutrition and less of a sense of community. It is a basic human right to have access to foods that will help them achieve or maintain a healthy lifestyle. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable underscores the importance of better distribution of resources and less inequity. By providing options such as farmer’s markets and food co-ops, the food desert will exist no longer and in its place will be a strong, healthy community.

Works Cited

Brubaker, Pamela, Rebecca Todd Peters, and Laura Stivers. Justice in a Global Economy. 1st ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. Print.

“Expanding Inner City Food Co-Ops.” National Public Radio. 2010. Radio. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129160847.&gt;

New International Version Bible. Gatewaybible.com Web. 15 April 2012

Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, 2011. Web. 29 April 2011. <http://onsl.org&gt;.

Pope John XXIII “Mater et Magistra.” Vatican, 15 May 1961. Web. 17 Apr 2012. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater_en.html&gt;.

Pope Paul VI. “Octogesima Adveniens .” Vatican, 14 May 1971. Web. 17 Apr 2012. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_letters/documents/hf_p-vi_apl_19710514_octogesima-adveniens_en.html&gt;.

Powers, Madison, and Ruth Faden. Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy. 1st ed. United States: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print

United States Congress. Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, S 7527, 110th Cong, 2nd Session. Washington: 2008. Web. 10 April 2012. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/AP/AP036/AP036fm.pdf>.

United States. Department of Agriculture. Creating Access to Healthy, Affordable Food. 2012. Web. <http://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/&gt;.

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