Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How can someone be both chronically hungry and overweight? A look at the Food Culture within Food Deserts

[This post written by Stacy Cherones, president & Co-founder of Get Healthy Dallas]

The combination of hunger and heftiness seems like an illogical contradiction. Some of our most immediate visual associations of hunger are those from media-based fundraising campaigns aimed at curbing hunger in the global south. These campaigns show children with pronounced ribs and distended stomachs, moving their emaciated bodies only with the greatest effort. Hunger is something that shows- it is visually obvious. Hunger and heftiness appearing together makes little sense from this perspective. In these cases, the visual evidence suggests the opposite- that too many calories are the problem, not too few.

What we’ve learned from research in American and British cities is that the conventional measures of calories and physical form are inadequate when discussing hunger at home. Two additional factors must be considered: calorie cost, and access to healthy foods. Firstly, families with tight food budgets try to stretch every dollar as far as it can go. The problem is, there are a multitude of cheap calorie options that are high in simple starches, fats, sodium, and sugar, and low in fiber and nutritional value (they are engineered to trigger our taste buds in the most satisfying ways too). These cheap calories succeed in quelling hunger pains, but fail in promoting health.

Some may note that dry rice and beans provide cheap and relatively healthy calories, and this is true, but that leads us to our second point: access to healthy foods. While some neighborhoods have multiple fresh food outlets, others have none. The term “food desert,” is used to refer to communities with limited or no access to fresh, healthy foods—most importantly, fresh fruits and vegetables. The term is meant to evoke the sense of barrenness related to the lack of access to the basic nutrition necessary to support a healthy life, but “food desert” isn’t a perfect metaphor. There is, in fact, plenty of food available in food deserts, but it tends to be fast food, or convenience store food—the type of food that never spoils.

While dry rice and beans might be ideal healthy options for families with tight food budgets, if these options aren’t readily available in the local neighborhood, then the nearby unhealthy alternatives supply the necessary calories. Residents in these neighborhoods are at a much higher risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The food environment—which is simultaneously a fresh food desert and a junk food jungle—clarifies why hunger and obesity are related problems.

At first blush, the solution to the problem of food deserts seems simple: solve limited access by building new grocery stores. Reality proves rather more complex. Although the term “food desert” was coined in the 1990s, these areas aren’t a new phenomenon. Food deserts have existed for generations, and residents developed ways of adapting to their food environment several decades ago.  Traditional food habits are slow to change, especially when reliable strategies have been developed to deal with food insecurity. Also slow to change are perceptions of corporate supermarkets, which tend to been seen as expensive food outlets.

Where does that leave us, then? An analysis of the food environment can clarify the link between hunger and obesity, but it is inadequate as a guide for moving forward. In order to develop effective strategies for greening food deserts, it is essential to consider not only food environments, but also food cultures. The patterns of life related to the access, preparation, distribution, and consumption of food are powerful means of communicating care within families, among friends, and between neighbors. These patterns must be engaged, and residents must become the primary authors of a healthier, homegrown food culture if healthier patters are to last over time.

Strategies implemented without reference to local food culture have failed. Health and hunger advocates can support a move toward healthier food environments by ensuring that healthy food is both affordable and readily accessible. However, changing the food environment is not enough. In order to create a local food system that prevents hunger and obesity while supporting healthy lifestyles, advocates must also collaborate with residents to ensure that the changes to the food environment are responsive to the food culture that the residents themselves create and sustain.

This will involve a process whereby the food environment and the food culture develop together in phases. Early phases may be best supported by healthy corner store initiatives that ensure affordable fresh food is available in existing food outlets. Homegrown healthy food culture may develop through church-based cooking courses, neighborhood garden clubs, culinary arts programs in the public schools, or any number of creative strategies developed by members of the community.  As the momentum behind healthy food culture builds, more substantial changes in the food environment might be implemented in response. In this way, hunger and obesity might be addressed together in a manner that responds to both the food environment and food culture, promoting a homegrown healthy food system that stands the test of time.

Get Healthy Dallas is a research-based advocacy initiative that helps communities across the city become healthier places, making for healthier people, families, and neighborhoods.