New Yorkers know a good thing when they see it. As reported in the New York Times, the Big Apple wants to make healthy nutrition available for everybody. Because fresh groceries are harder to come by in poor neighborhoods than in affluent communities, city officials plan to offer supermarkets a number of incentives to set up shop in places where they are “underrepresented.”
Of course, there are good reasons why underprivileged areas have long suffered from a chronic scarcity of grocery outlets. Fresh produce, meat, dairy products and other perishables have all become increasingly expensive in recent years. Some foods with the highest nutritional value are outright unaffordable for people on a limited budget.
Critics of the proposed program point out that it is unclear whether easier access to healthier foods would automatically improve people’s health. This is not a simple “supply and demand” issue, they say. Although the underprivileged are disproportionately hard hit by diet-related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension, it is by no means guaranteed that the availability of better quality foods will make them change their existing eating habits. Poor diets are common among poor people, but so are alcohol and drug abuse.
What needs to be taken into account as well is a widespread lack of knowledge and education about issues of health and nutrition. Without accompanying educational efforts to raise nutritional awareness, we can’t expect behavioral changes to take place by themselves.
Yet despite of all these obstacles, accepting the dismal existing situation is no longer an option. Health care for the poor on an emergency basis is unsustainable. Instead of treating people only when they are sick, we all would be better off if we did more to keep them healthy, starting with good nutrition. Improving access to fresh food supplies for everyone is one of the best preventive health care measures we could come up with.
Government can play an important role in facilitating preventive health care, especially for those in society who are the most vulnerable. But whatever course of action government officials will eventually decide to take, it must be practical and it must be reality-based.
This should be quite feasible! For instance, I read recently with great satisfaction about the increasing acceptance of food stamps at farmers markets. As a friend of mine once said, local farmers markets are candy stores for health nuts. So are the “urban farms” that are springing up in inner cities all over the country. For inexperienced food shoppers, these small, individually owned outlets are far less overwhelming and intimidating than the upscale supermarkets – and, of course, much more affordable.
The great success of Alice Water’s “Edible School Yard” project, which she started to help improve the quality of school lunches for inner city kids, did not come from the food that she grew on a deserted lot in downtown Oakland. It came from the spirit she awakened in everyone she engaged and challenged to spread the idea of healthy nutrition in their homes and their communities until it took hold and changed people’s lives.