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America's Food Crisis
by Yuval Ben Ami
Sunday Dec 21st, 2003 9:55 PM
Rarely will you come across fresh fruits and vegetables, or fresh meat or milk products for sale in the poorer neighborhoods of America's cities. The right to quality food and low prices is a privilege reserved exclusively for the well-off.
BOSTON - When two overweight teenage girls from New York, Ashley Feldman and Jazlyn Bradley, last year sued the McDonald's hamburger chain claiming that it was responsible for their physical condition, many Americans chuckled to themselves. After all, people should assume responsibility for what they place in their mouth, should they not? United States District Judge Robert Sweet, who presided over this case, accepted the arguments of the skeptics and cynics and ruled in favor of McDonald's.

"If consumers know ... the potential ill-health effect of eating at McDonald's, they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products," Sweet said last January. A spokesperson for the hamburger chain responded happily with the statement, "Common sense has prevailed."

However, when Kim McKay, a young New York social worker, set off to look for a light lunch in the neighborhood where Feldman and Bradley live, she found herself faced with a problem. When she transferred her job location to the South Bronx, McKay knew that this was one of America's most rundown neighborhoods and that she would have to contend with various headaches - work with a population that had lost all hope, the dangers lurking along her route from the subway station to her office and the unavoidable feeling of alienation, rooted in the fact that her skin was white.

There was, however, one crisis she was unprepared for: the inability to find even a trace of a fresh tomato in the entire neighborhood.

She recalls setting off to look for a light lunch on her first day in her new job location and how, after a half-hour's walk, she realized that all that she would be able to find would be greasy fast food. The many grocery stores she passed sold a wide range of preserved food but no fresh vegetables. The upshot was that, left with no other alternative, she found herself in one of the long lines at the McDonald's restaurant at the corner of 149th Street and Third Avenue.

McKay lives in another, and more pleasant, Bronx neighborhood, where the choice is also very limited. For years, she points out, she has been forced to travel to Manhattan to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. But she considers the situation in the South Bronx even more grim: It is almost impossible to find any healthy food there, and that, she says, is a very serious problem indeed.

She is not the only one who thinks so. Agencies responsible for seeing to the health of Americans are alarmed over the nutritional condition of the residents of the country's socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Malnutrition per se is only part of the problem. The health ramifications of a shortage of quality food in these neighborhoods are a problem in itself. In 1994, the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program published a research report that stated that retail food chains have abandoned the poorer neighborhoods in America's cities and that investments in the construction of supermarkets are based on purely business considerations and take no account of the local community's needs.

One reason for the absence of supermarkets in poor neighborhoods is the gargantuan sums of money needed to insure property in such areas. The grocery stores in these neighborhoods, which do not have to worry about competition with supermarkets but do have to contend with heavy insurance premiums, tend to charge high prices. This trend plays right into the hands of the fast-food chains, which supply convenient food that is quickly prepared, hot, tasty and cheap - although, in most cases, its nutritional value is problematic and its caloric value enormous.

Nutrition is a central concern in American society. Being overweight is now considered an epidemic, and justifiably so. Three out of every five Americans is overweight. Dr. William Weitz of the Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that 20 percent of America's citizens are obese (that is, dangerously overweight). There has been a 50-percent increase, he notes, in the number of obese adult Americans over the past two decades, while the number of obese American children has doubled over that period of time.

According to experts, today's children will become the first generation in American history whose life expectancy will be shorter than that of their parents.

The symptoms of this epidemic are particularly blatant in America's suburbs, where consumer culture reigns supreme, supermarkets sell food in gigantic packages and restaurant chains serve huge portions of food loaded with butter and cheese. The dependence of suburbanites on their cars encourages this phenomenon. However, why does one encounter on the streets of Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood most of whose African-American residents are poor, so many overweight people?

To the casual visitor, it would appear that there is no shortage of bread on the tables of Roxbury's residents. In fact, it is impossible to obtain fresh bread in this neighborhood. Given the absence of supermarkets, Roxbury's residents must depend on small grocery stores, which sell only prepackaged, chemical-laden white bread. Bread of this variety has few nutritional fibers, which provide the digestive system with stimuli that can slow down the process of fat build-up in the body. Alongside the packaged white bread on the grocery stores' shelves you can find processed cheese spreads, low-quality preserved meat products and low-priced sweets.

It is easy to find prayer candles decorated with the portraits of saints or Latin American music cassettes in these small grocery stores, but only on rare occasions will one see alongside these items fruits and vegetables, fresh meat or dairy products. Tropical Foods, a shop catering to the communities of immigrants from the Caribbean islands, is the only store with a reasonable vegetable department in a neighborhood that has a population of some 55,000. Products for people with special needs - for example, diabetics - are simply unavailable in Roxbury.

Beyond the neighborhood's boundaries, one can find an abundance of good food. Boston has a spacious marketplace offering fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices on Fridays and Saturdays; however, it is hard for Roxbury's residents to get to it. There are no subway stations in the neighborhood, which is the bustling core of the city's African-American community and a trip from Roxbury to this marketplace entails taking a bus and two different commuter trains.

Those who, despite everything, do their shopping in the marketplace are, for the most part, immigrants with very different eating habits.

Peter Brown, a Roxbury resident who is a construction worker, says that he and his girlfriend sometimes travel a half-hour by bus to shop at the closest supermarket. He claims, however, that most of the neighborhood's inhabitants are lazy and patronize the small grocery stores instead. Like the immigrants who are willing to travel a considerable distance to shop in the marketplace, Peter and his girlfriend are prepared to invest time and energy to enrich the contents of their refrigerators; however, it is doubtful whether a single mother of two children who holds two jobs would be ready to travel long distances in the evening to do her food shopping while holding the hand of one of her children and carrying the other in her arms. Even if she possesses, by some miracle, her own car, the shortage of parking spaces and the traffic congestion of downtown Boston seriously reduce the attractiveness of such an idea.

The accepted policy in the U.S. for fighting the obesity epidemic has failed in Roxbury and other similar neighborhoods because that policy is based on the promotion of physical exercise and on teaching people to recognize the value of healthy food.

Suburbanites enjoy extensive stretches of park area and their streets are sufficiently safe for joggers. In the socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, on the other hand, some parents would rather see their children fattening themselves up before the television set than have them go out into the crime-infested streets.

Teaching people about the value of healthy nutrition shares the same grim fate. Residents of the suburbs, where one can find a wide variety of food, have the opportunity to acquire good eating habits. However, in Roxbury's grocery stores, even well-educated residents are faced with a lack of choice.

The process that led to this situation began with the migration of members of America's middle class from downtown areas to the suburbs in the period immediately following the Second World War. Two groups remained in the downtown core: the very poor and members of a highly educated and particularly affluent urban class. The imbalance in food distribution is but one example of the gap that was created but it is an especially grotesque example. Situated three kilometers north of Roxbury is an outlet of the Trader Joe's supermarket chain. This giant supermarket offers its customers fine food from the four corners of the earth - food that contains no preservatives or food coloring and which is sold at amazingly low prices, right in the middle of Brookline, a neighborhood whose residents are all affluent.

Brookline offers its inhabitants a long life expectancy in several ways. Its streets are safe, a light rail transit system has replaced the many bus lines that once served Brookline and has contributed to cleaner air, and great attention is paid to garbage collection. To this picture we can add a wide range of food of every kind. The neighborhood has Russian, Jewish, Thai and Indian delicatessens; two supermarkets, and one giant supermarket that sells only natural food. Only in this giant supermarket are prices higher than those in Roxbury's grocery stores. At Trader Joe's they are considerably lower. The number of residents in Brookline, which enjoys the status of being an independent city vis-a-vis Boston, is approximately equal to Roxbury's, which has no other option besides Tropical Foods.

There is an additional irony in the fact that the majority owner of the Trader Joe's chain is a German company, Aldi, which, in Germany, operates a chain of low-priced grocery stores catering to customers with limited means. The Aldi chain became a cultural icon in Germany and in other European countries. In the 1990s, the cloth bags sold beside the cashier counters were adopted as a sign of solidarity with the lower strata of society. In the U.S., other business and cultural winds are blowing: Trader Joe's outlets are opened only in prestigious neighborhoods and in shopping malls in affluent suburbs. The right to quality food and low prices is a privilege reserved exclusively for the rich, and they thus enjoy a high level of health.

There is a McDonald's branch in Roxbury's central square and on Brookline's main street, and in both neighborhoods it is difficult to find anything that can beat the prices thefast-food chain offers. Many of Roxbury's residents are drawn to the local McDonald's branch because of basic economic considerations. Even those who are very familiar with the caloric value of the food served at McDonald's, the quantity of the various preservatives that this food contains, and the complex environmental aspects of America's fast-food industry find it hard to argue with McDonald's Dollar Menu. In any event, McDonald's has no real rival in Roxbury's central square, except for a Chinese restaurant that is slightly more expensive but quite dirty.

Sitting at a table in the Chinese restaurant is a Roxbury resident, Joseph L. Boyle III, who gazes at the many customers passing through the giant yellow arches and who is seated in front of a steaming bowl of rice, shrimp and vegetables. He says that he makes a point of having at least one good meal a day, although he adds that this is not a habit he acquired as a child. He acquired it during his many travels throughout the world while serving with the United States Navy. In the course of those travels, he enjoyed colorful salads in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Boyle, who works as an aide in a drug rehabilitation center, is aware of the problem of nutrition and proposes a militant approach. His idea is to organize, as the initiators of the Civil Rights Movement (for African-Americans) did in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. He believes that what is needed is a campaign that will lead to the opening of a supermarket in Roxbury. The campaign would include letter-writing and rallies. There might be some casualties; perhaps the owners of the neighborhood's small grocery stores would be among them. But, he explains, there is no alternative: That is what always happens when people demand change.

In contrast with Boyle's attitude, many of the neighborhood's residents just shrug their shoulders when the subject is raised and express satisfaction with the variety of choice offered on the shelves of Tropical Foods. A brief visit to Brookline might change their mind; however, the invisible interracial and class walls in American cities are so high that many of Roxbury's inhabitants would never even contemplate such a visit.

This atmosphere of indifference impairs the realism in Boyle's dynamic ideas and leaves most of the responsibility for change to non-profit organizations. One such organization based in Pennsylvania, the Oley Institute, buys the produce of farmers who are members of the devout Amish community and rushes it to Philadelphia, selling the fresh fruits and vegetables in a marketplace set up in the middle of the city's poorer neighborhoods.

Other organizations, such as the Urban Garden in Chicago, are converting abandoned lots in depressed neighborhoods into fields where volunteers, who are members of the local community, grow fresh vegetables. Thus, one can now see rows of cauliflower growing between abandoned buildings west of the city's business district. Chicago's poorer neighborhoods are still not a flourishing garden, but the small fields bear considerable symbolism for neighborhoods where those very fields were in the past used primarily for the sale of hard drugs, stolen merchandise and a serving of deep-fried onion rings.