Food Desert

Food for Thought

I had dinner with George and Mariel at this excellent Afghan restaurant in Astoria last night. Mariel told me about the research she is working on around the topic of “food desert.” I didn’t know anything about it. Apparently, USDA uses the concept to monitor the health of the American people, but it’s only loosely defined because it’s controversial. When Mariel described it to me, my immediate thought was that it’s a problem of chicken or egg first. Do food deserts exist because they have no access to healthy food? Or, do people live in those areas because they don’t care about healthy food? I’m sure both factors play roles to some degree but I would argue that the latter is most of it.

Sure enough, the Wikipedia page on this topic have sections about the cultural and educational factors. Some scholars do agree with me, and some research has been conducted to prove it.

When my wife worked as a social worker for a nonprofit, she came across people who could not drink water because they grew up drinking only soda and juice. When they were prompted to drink a cup of water, they gagged. They live in Manhattan but chose to live as if they live in a food desert.

Incidentally, my wife just came back from a vacation in Trinidad. She was living on a farm far from any modern conveniences; no running water or air conditioner. It would perfectly fit USDA’s definition of food desert, yet the people there eat healthier than we do in New York.

Access to food or knowledge can’t be the problem. If anyone is interested in learning about healthy food, on the Internet, he can find more information than he could consume in his lifetime. The word “access” implies that people have the desire to, but that’s obviously not the case. Many people simply don’t care.

The concept like “education” disturbs me in a context like this. It’s elitism. If someone doesn’t want to know something, why is it the problem of educated elites to educate them? The idea is disrespectful and dehumanizing. If I grew up being told that I don’t know how to manage my own life, and that I should just do what smarter people tell me to do, perhaps I too would lose interest in acquiring knowledge.