The Root: The Myth of the Food Desert

 A worker fills the vegetable shelves with organic cucumbers at a supermarket.

 A worker fills the vegetable shelves with organic cucumbers at a supermarket. A new law will make school lunches more nutritious, but critics say the government is spending too much, and overreaching. David Silverman/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David Silverman/Getty Images

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

President Obama's new school-lunch law is a good start, but healthy eating begins at home.

Signing into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will naturally not go down in history for President Barack Obama the way the latest tax compromise has. It's not that hot kind of news — although it will likely have more effect on children's daily lives than modest tax cuts. This new bill requires food served in schools, including in vending machines, to be more nutritious and gives a boost to funding for various child nutrition programs.

The take-home justification for the bill is that one in three American children is now obese, and that the problem is especially acute among the poor of all colors. To get a sense of how critical this problem is, think of this: If you grew up in the '70s or before, you certainly remember the occasional "fat kid," or even fat family. But today, in low- and even modest-income neighborhoods, the term is almost useless because kids we used to classify as fat are now the norm.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act appeals to us because its logic seems so clear: To make kids healthier, we change what is available for them to eat. However, we can't help but wonder: What about what children eat when they're not at school? Conventional wisdom has it that changing kids' evening and weekend eating habits will also be a matter of changing their environment.

Specifically, we are taught to think that the black obesity problem is in large part a matter of societal injustice. The story goes that the rise in obesity among the poor is due to a paucity of supermarkets in inner-city areas. This factoid has quite a hold on the general conversation about health issues and the poor, for two reasons. One is that it sits easily in the memory. The other is that it corresponds to our sense that poor people's problems are not their fault — which quite often they are not — and that reversing the problem will require undoing said injustice.

The trouble is that it is impossible to truly see a causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket when you live, for example, in New York.

Fairway has been thriving in West Harlem for 15 years, with gorgeous, accessibly priced produce practically spilling out onto the sidewalk. Plenty of local black people shop in it. It's a walk away for many, and for others, there is even a shuttle service. It is not inaccessible to poor blacks and Latinos in any way.

Yet obesity is still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in Greenwich Village. Throughout the city, there are supermarkets amply stocked with fresh produce priced modestly, in struggling neighborhoods where the average weight of people is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side.

Another example: It was one thing to read four years ago about the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and low-fat milk. The idea was that people for whom these bodegas are their closest source of food would be healthier if they could buy fresher and less fatty food there. But it was another thing to follow up on the results . After two years, only one in four stores reported people buying more vegetables, and one in three reported people buying more fruit.

The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences and economics — a palate. Note that the economy is part of the equation: The cheapness of sugary drinks is notorious, thanks to the popularity and influence of the muckraking 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and Eric Schlosser's best-selling book Fast Food Nation, which was made into a movie in 2006.

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find "fault." Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn't make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.

But that did help create what has lived on as a palate even after the circumstances that created it have changed. That happens with all human beings, as with CDs, designed to be round like LPs. Someone raised on fruity drinks and fried food is as likely to prefer them permanently — even if Fairway is down the street — as someone raised on pita bread and hummus will eat that way forever. I was raised on a cuisine stamped by, if not centered on, the salty realm, and I alternate eternally between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that taste for grease.

All of which is to say that our take on the obesity issue at hand cannot be that sugary and high-fat food is always the only food that is available to poor people within walking distance. It simply isn't true. If we assume that the next step from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will be to make sure all poor people live three blocks or fewer from a supermarket, we will see a problem continue.

Rather, there are habits that people of all walks of life develop for any number of reasons, on which they can be persuaded to pull back. We should focus more attention on getting the word out in struggling communities about ways to make tasty food that doesn't kill you. With this book, for instance, you don't miss real flavor — pass it on.

But let's not fall for the idea that for poor black people and only poor black people, kale and apples being sold four blocks away are out of reach.

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