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Land of Milk and Honey
 

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Most Americans can access food on a whim. We live among golden arches and supersized colas and tasty gas station snacks wrapped in 500-calorie packets. Gone are the days of toiling for food; now it surrounds us, ready-to-eat, and energy packed. Yet America still struggles to maintain proper nourishment.

Historically, malnutrition was a result of starvation or persistent digestive illness. It was manifested by low bodyweight and depressed immune systems. But today’s malnutrition appears as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. The divorce of macro and micronutrients in modern cuisine has allowed people to consume calorically-dense foods that are deficient of critical vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and essential fatty and amino acids. Americans are overweight and nutrient deficient, resulting in a relatively modern phenomenon that contributes a $150 billion annual burden to our health care system and is the forefront of public health concerns.

Malnutrition has always been rooted in poverty, but the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has recently shown that unhealthy diets are increasingly severe in certain impoverished American communities because these areas have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. They are void of large grocery stores and supermarkets, so residents are forced to rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants for the majority of their food intake.

This concern led Congress, in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, to direct the USDA to conduct a one-year study of areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The culmination of this study, the Food Desert Locator, was released last week as a tool to identify such census tracts. Food deserts can be located in low-income urban centers where fresh groceries are scarce or in rural areas where the geography is large and the salaries are small. Mississippi State University released a study indicating that the highest concentration of food-desert counties in the United States extends east from the Rocky Mountains toward the Great Plains. Included are swaths of Montana, representing 24 of the state’s 56 counties.

The USDA plans to use the Food Desert Locator to expand the availability of nutritious food by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, and corner stores with fresh and healthy food.

While some aspects of this initiative may prove successful in urban food deserts, they are mainly impractical in rural settings. Large groceries do not exist in small communities because there is not a market for them. Supermarkets can only survive in population centers, and without significant demand for their goods, these stores are not economically viable. It is equally difficult to equip small retailers and corner stores with healthy foods. With the exception of whole grains and legumes, most nutritious fare is highly perishable. Seldom visited markets have difficulty keeping produce crisp, and fruits and vegetables are often the consistency of neoprene before they see a shopping cart.

But even if nutritious foods were more available, this would not necessarily translate into improved dietary behavior. A study in Glasgow, UK, showed that, after the opening of a new supermarket in a food desert, the average fruit and vegetable intake only increased by one-third of a serving per individual.

This is because diets are products of more than availability. Taste, convenience, education, economy, habit, and evolution are all factors that influence diet. Two hundred and fifty thousand years of hunting and gathering has taught us to store calories so we may survive the next period of starvation. This influences the financially strapped mother to spend her dollar on a 380-calorie Burger King Single Stacker instead of 50 calories of spinach—especially if that burger is entrenched routine, requires no preparation, and is more agreeable to her child.

Although accessibility is critical, throwing vegetables at America’s food deserts will not solve our malnutrition woes. Solutions must start at the community level and involve government incentives, private investment, and grassroots efforts—plus plenty of awareness education. They may include periodic subsidized transportation to supermarkets or investment in mobile farmers' markets. But, in a rural environment, perhaps the most complete solution is the personal or civic garden.

Gardens provide low-income residents with fresh and inexpensive produce. They promote self-sufficiency and foster physical and emotional connection between people and food. They are accessible to stay-at-home parents, and are ideal venues for educating children and adults on proper nutrition, growing methods, and food preservation. In high-latitude regions, government or privately funded greenhouses can be used to extend growing seasons and increase yields.

But the USDA’s food desert program, increased education, and support of local markets and gardens are only components of the remedy to America’s obesity problem. More importantly, our attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles must change so that pounds can be shed, dollars saved, years extended, and lives lived. -BM

 
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