organic food in the black community: a desert land

May 20, 2010

Some time ago a friend asked me if I could drive her to a grocery store because her car was broken down. I offered to take her to one a bit further out but she chose one in the hood that she always goes to. I had never been there before although I had driven past numerous times. I went inside the store with her, following her aisle by aisle as she filled up her cart with canned vegetables, canned fruit and boxes of freeze dried mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. The beef in the meat aisle looked sad and all of the fruit was shrink wrapped. I picked up a four pack of apples and turned it around in my hands, trying to inspect for bruises and firmness.

Organic food in the Black Community: A desert land
Story Renee Tecco
Original AP post and comments can be found here
“Are you going to buy something?” she asked me. Her kids were busily tossing food into the two carts in an effort to abbreviate the trip so as not to inconvenience me more than they had to. I shook my head no and set the package back down.

“Everything here is priced low,” I said to her and she nodded happily as she reached for a loaf of white bread from the middle of a bread pyramid. I reflected on the PBS show I saw on class a few months prior, which discussed how white bread isn’t that nutritious but in lower class homes in America it’s a staple. Heck, they can’t even give the whole grain breads away there.

Which made me wonder why weren’t there healthier food offered in the store? Or maybe it was too much to expect from a place that plastic wrapped their grapes, perhaps to deter customers from sampling their sweetness. There were no organic whole grains, meat with labels that proudly advertised it was free range, not even organic snacks. I wondered what was going on there? Did they think that African Americans didn’t like to eat healthy?

Maybe they don’t think so since African Americans are more likely to be overweight than other races; even we perceive ourselves to be that way. In poor neighborhood there’s an overabundance of fast food restaurants bringing a new twist on the chicken and the egg conundrum: do franchisers put fast food restaurants in the hood because we are overweight or are we overweight because there are fast food places everywhere?

But just looking at the results without thinking about the process is misleading; I know it’s about finding something to eat that tastes good but is also cheap. When a young overwhelmed, overworked mother needs to feed her family opening up a can of corn to go along with meat and neon colored macaroni and cheese might seem the best way to go. You don’t think about the preservatives and the chemicals that are in those foods when you just need to get something on the table. And the stores in the hood make it easier to buy in bulk with aisles and aisles of easy food items everywhere.

I should say, that’s for the grocery stores that remain in the hood. Just two weeks ago a major grocery chain announced it was closing it’s doors in one of my cities working class neighborhoods. They promised their customers for one month they would give bus tokens so they can go to one of two other stores that are both are approximately two miles away. For those who have cars, that’s fine but it really just adds to the growing number of food deserts that hurt the black population.

What is a food desert? In a recent interview with NPR’s radio show Tell Me More with Michele Martin it, Chicago Public Radio journalist Natalie Moore explained it like this:

Ms. MOORE: Somebody just asked me yesterday – what is a food desert? And these are neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores and also don’t have access to fresh healthy food. What you often find in food deserts are a lot of fast food chains and corner stores. And in these corner stores you’re not finding a meat section or a produce section. There’s a lot of processed food. You know, nothing that you would really want to have a daily diet of.

So, back to my example of an overwrought mother who has to travel a couple of miles just to get food for her children to eat she might decide it’s better to stock up on canned or dry foods which makes for less grocery trips. Or if she has no way to the store that day (or week) she can give her kids a few bucks to head to the fast food restaurant for the latest heart attack sandwich, that is if the kids haven’t decided to blow 5 bucks on a bag of chips and a bag of candy.

It’s a far cry from my own childhood, where canned food seemed like luxury items. We didn’t have a car, but somehow it seemed like we had a lot of fresh vegetables to eat. Green beans, collard greens, and carrots were always in the home. On the weekend my mother and oldest brothers would go downtown to Finley Market which is a group of farm stands that has ripe or near ripe foods that need to be used within a week. Some women in the hood had vegetable gardens of tomatoes, cabbage and greens. I had a friend who would love to sneak into a neighbors garden to steal her tomatoes, which she swore tasted too good. Who used pesticides? I don’t even think I learned that word until I was a teen. Vegetables and beans cooked in ham hocks or fatback were in almost everyone’s home.

Which makes me think that if given the time and the ability we could do it again. Community vegetable gardens would have a built in customer base. A 2007 article in Choices magazine said that the number of “African Americans who purchased organic produce…increased from 34% in 2001 to 37% in 2004, while the proportion of organic users among other groups have remained relatively the same.” Given the choice and economic incentive, more African Americans would choose organic foods, they just need access to them.

“I feel bad you didn’t buy anything,” my friend said as we loaded her groceries into the car. She purchased a months worth of food, just enough to help her get by until she could get me or a relative to drive her to a grocery store.

“It’s cool,” I reassured. “Don’t worry, I’ll just pick something up on my way home.”

Which I did. I went to a different grocery store where the vibrancy of their produce section made it seem like I just stepped into the land of Oz. A sign in the produce section boasted of number of different varieties of fruits and vegetables they had. Of course, they had a large organic produce section.

As I meandered over to the meat section I wonder why my friend didn’t let me bring her to this store, which was a lot closer to her home. Maybe she was more used to the other store and if can’t shop a lot each month then the other store was cheaper on quantity. If she needed to get to this store without me it it was at least 3 miles from her home on foot, no direct bus routes.

I should have brought her to this one, I think guiltily as I stand in the checkout line. But she didn’t want to come to this one, she asked to go the other one. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

But what about leading a horse to food, can you make it eat? And what if the apple is organic?