My mother-in-law lives one hour from Canton, Ohio. Her house sits on a corner of a rural highway, a mile and a half from where she grew up. She has neighbors that are either farmers or Amish. The small town’s grocery store closed about six years ago and basic staples can be obtained at the “Drug Mart” and “Dollar General” that is driving distance to the small town. Her other option is to drive to Canton or another town 45 minutes away to go to a traditional grocery store.
Access to food is one of many systemic problems for our country. While this rural example is but one, food discrimination is just as prominent in urban environments. A common term used is “food deserts” to describe neighborhoods that lack any sort of grocery access (defined as more than 1 mile to food access in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas).
One or ten miles respectively may not seem like much, but for many, the distance is even greater. Whether it is lack of access to transportation, financial means, local mass transit or infirm from age or disease, food deserts exist in most metropolitan areas.
Often in areas of low socioeconomic neighborhoods, food deserts make it challenging for families to prepare quality meals and more often have to rely on options such as fast food or boxed/processed foods. As most of my Emergency Medicine work is in a city hospital, I see the complications of this every day. These foods are inexpensive and quick to make, but they are low in nutritional value, low in fiber and typically high in salt, fat and cholesterol. When these are a family’s best options, it proves my point: there is a problem.
There are multiple solutions to this problem. While moving is one option, it is not realistic for most. Instacart.com, Amazon Prime for Whole Foods or other food delivery services are good options, but they come with several barriers. Subscription services have an annual fee and grocery deliveries are often more expensive. Also, rural access, such as with my mother-in-law, is not offered by most of these delivery services.
Food pantries or food banks are places for those with a tight budget (or sometimes no budget at all). While, traditionally, canned goods and other nonperishable items were what mainly existed at these places, a shift towards healthier options has taken place and more and more fruits and vegetables are available. There is always a strain on inventory for these places, but if this is your best option, that is what they are there for. If you have the means to donate to local food pantries that can in turn dispense to those in need, thank you.
Community gardens are one answer which, when there are enough volunteers, shows a lot of promise, This is especially helpful regarding older populations such as those that rely on Meals-on-Wheels. I recall being a young idealistic Family Medicine doctor delivering these meals to see where my patients lived and do home visits, as well. It never dawned on me that these meals, while important for sustenance, probably was not the most healthy of food options.
Community gardens have so many benefits.
Typically, they are started by either donations from nurseries or by community members wanting to help themselves and those around them. Some of these gardens sell plots at minimal cost for individuals to do their own gardening. Often times, surplus food is donated or dispensed in the area to neighbors. Volunteerism, social engagement, physical activity, mental wellness: these are good things that can come from this concept.
In Dr. Musa’s area of Canton, Ohio is www.cantonfarmersmarkert.com/garden
Here in Richmond, Va. there are multiple options: www.richmondgov.com/CommunityGarden/index.aspx
And then there is taking matters in your own hands at home. Make your own food. Below is a picture of my raised bed. I am fortunate to have a few 4 feet by 4 feet raised beds with irrigation. But you do not need all of this. A large pot will do. A big planter is even better. After you buy that, you can buy a big bag of potting soil for less than 10 dollars. What you see before you is a row of carrots sprouting ($1.82 for the pack of seeds….and still plenty of seeds to spare) with a tomato root that came up from last year's planting. The rest is all lettuce ($1.82 for a pack of seeds, also with more seeds to spare). Lettuce itself typically costs anywhere from $1.50-3.50 per head at most stores. If you can grow even a quarter of this lettuce and cut the leaves (if you do not pull the roots it will keep growing during the season) you will get a HUGE return on your investment. You do have to water it and occasionally pull some weeds. But after the initial time of planting, this is low maintenance.
One comment on grocery stores regarding more whole food plant-based options is that we can vote with our mouths. Because I occasionally travel to rural areas or other states where doctors are needed temporarily, I go food shopping in a variety of stores. Options can be limited for my needs simply because that is what is shipped to the area. The more we demand with our purchases, the more will become available. We are all consumers to one degree or another, but the more we take control with our purchases and manage the things we buy, the more we will get the things we need and ultimately it will lead to better health.
This is taking control of your health. Happy eating!