This past week I read an article by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about initiatives that Philadelphia is considering to make healthy food accessible to low-income households. They have a number of wonderful ideas – offering an incentive for convenience stores to stock fresh fruit and vegetables, incenting people to use food stamps at Farmer’s Markets (and making it easier to do so), encouraging more supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods.
In reading it, I wondered why such proposals and conversations aren’t more prevalent. Here in Maine, I’m aware of Cooking Matters, which teaches all ages of people how to cook healthy meals on a budget. But it’s not something I see advertised often. Nor do I see much about what Cultivating Community does, even though they describe themselves as a “community food project” . I was lucky enough to stumble across these organizations, but it almost feels like you already have to be on the inside, or a beneficiary, to learn about them. Why is this?
I have to wonder how much class issues come into play. Some Farmer’s Markets, for instance, have become extremely trendy, places to go because it’s good to be seen there. Do the upper-middle-class folks who often frequent such places really want lower-income families to show up? If not, why bother with offering to accept food stamps? I’d like to think this isn’t a factor, but I don’t know that it’s not.
Additionally, I suspect that weight prejudice may come into play. Despite the preponderance of evidence that being overweight these days is almost automatic for many people (if you can’t afford healthier foods, or don’t even know what to do with them once you have them, what options do you have?), I have the sense that many people still consider losing weight to be just a matter of “willpower”. Given that, why would we need to provide all of these options? Yet if that were true, how is it that the current generation has so much less “willpower” than any previous generation?
Even if we offer more options, some people may not be motivated to take them. After all, when you’re living day to day, never quite knowing if you’ll be able to get enough or any food, worrying about the long-term health risks is a lower priority.
I therefore think it’s important to also emphasize the short-term benefits of healthy eating. For myself, and I’ve heard from others as well, when I eat healthy foods, I simply feel better. I’m more satisfied, I have more and consistent energy, my moods are more stable, I can focus better and think more clearly. I am a more productive member of society, and a happier one. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to experience that?
While I’m pleased with what Philadelphia is doing, and the few things that I know about here in Maine, this discussion needs to be part of a much larger dialogue. We need to ensure that people who are living hand-to-mouth have options for what, exactly, is going from hand to mouth, and that they aren’t dismissed as simply not trying hard enough to lose weight. This also needs to be a nation-wide effort, more than just localized areas, so that not only those with enough disposable income can enjoy the benefits of healthy eating.