First Lady Michelle Obama has become one of the most recognized faces in the battle against childhood obesity in recent years. Whether motivating the youth to exercise by busting out the dougie or displaying her green thumb in the White House Garden, the first lady has remained vocal not only about the direct role that exercising and eating play in one’s health, but also the importance of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly in low-income communities. However, a recent Slate article challenges the first lady’s healthful food initiative and questions the legitimacy of the popular “food desert” notion, bringing us to question the real connection between poor health in impoverished neighborhoods.
In “Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem,” health journalist Heather Tirado Gilligan addresses the many fresh food initiatives, such as Obama’s 2010 Healthy Food Initiative, that have been launched across the country since the early 2000’s. Focusing on the idea of food deserts—a geographic area sorely lacking in healthful and affordable foods—these initiatives aim to improve the diets and eating habits of poor people by providing better options.
Gilligan considers this mission a “lovely idea,” but argues that despite preliminary reports suggesting possible links between access to a grocery store and poor diets, recent studies show reveal little to no connections between food environments and diets. And she’s not alone.
“Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans,” she reports. “[Fresh food campaigns] offer a market-based opportunity for individuals to make better choices about health, leaving the impression that people living in poverty get sick for reasons that are within their control.”
According to Gilligan, financial binds that these individuals face, like paying the water bill, making rent and affording children’s school clothing, might be more to blame for the alarming health disparities existing in impoverished, predominantly Black and Hispanic communities.
“Stress reactions, like floods of adrenaline and cortisol and increased blood pressure, are helpful as short-term reactions to dangerous or challenging situations. But if stress reactions are constant, they create physiological conditions that damage the body,î Gilligan writes, linking stress to poverty-associated illness like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Black adults are at least 50 percent more likely to die of heart disease or stroke prematurely than their non-Hispanic white counter parts, according to the CDC,. Additionally, the prevalence of adult diabetes is higher among Hispanics and Blacks, especially those within lower household incomes, than among Asians and whites.
As for children of color, the national infant mortality rate for Blacks is more than double the rate for whites. Yet, the infants who avoid that startling statistic are disproportionately affected by childhood obesity compared to white children.
So, if better access to fresh fruits and vegetables is not the answer, then what is? Gillian suggests that as Americans, we shift the focus from the produce aisle to poverty itself.
“[We] we build supermarkets, finance green grocer carts, and teach former inmates about fennel, feeling like we’re promoting a progressive effort to improve the plight of the disadvantaged,î she writes. ìMeanwhile, poor people are living shorter, sicker lives, with no helpful new policy in sight.î