Soooo I spent about 90 minutes at Giant yesterday morning gathering my food for the impending snow like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter. I lugged 7 heavy bags of groceries into my car and drove home. As I loaded my car I started thinking about the Long Reach residents who have to do the same thing as I do. Only their grocery store is not within walking distance of their home. And some of them don’t have a car so they have to call a cab, get on the bus, or get a ride with a friend to the nearest store. Then I started thinking about what a pain in the ass that must be. No fresh food providers nearby to run to when you want to get real food. Plenty of places to get processed, fatty, high sugar and sodium foods for cheap. These are the conditions of a food desert. Lemme explain…
I researched the definition of a food desert and got a few different versions. For this post, I will present three.
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is first. USDA defines a food desert as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” Long Reach loosely fits this definition. There are plenty of grocery stores and farmer’s markets in and around Columbia but none within a mile of the Long Reach village center.
- Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future defines a food desert as “An area where the distance to a supermarket is more than one quarter of a mile; the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level; over 40 percent of households have no vehicle available; and the average Healthy Food Availability Index score for supermarkets, convenience and corner stores is low (measured using the Nutrition Environment Measurement Survey).” I think Long Reach may meet that but I confess I don’t have the numbers to back up my suspicions.
- The third is a random definition which speaks to the number of people that live in a food desert area. It states that ” a food desert is a low-income census tract where at least 500 people or a third of the population has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. In an urban area, this means living at least a mile from such a store; in a rural area, at least 10 miles.” Columbia is neither urban nor rural so this is why I struggle to get a good definition.
The reason why I’m so fired up about Long Reach having access to fresh foods is because you cannot possibly have a healthy community without it. As a health advocate, I see this as a major issue. If a group of people have a diet that doesn’t meet the national dietary guidelines, that’s a public health threat. These groups are at risk for developing obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, etc. You don’t want that. We will all pay the price on some level for these people having health problems. Sick, poor people drain your resources, become workers with high absentee rates, and incur high debt due to health bills that they cannot afford (after health benefits have been applied, of course). Think it over. I make sense here.
Long Reach reform cannot happen without a plan for food people!!! It’s a must. And there’s funding to attract business owners to the area if you play your cards right. There’s this legislation in the Maryland Assembly right now called HB 451. The bill offers $1 million annually to businesses who are willing to sell Maryland-grown produce in areas that don’t have a grocery store. The bill, sponsored by Governor Martin O’Malley, passed 108-25. Also, the Federal Government has the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that offers grant money to organizations that want to fill the void in communities through nutrition. AND there’s a New Market Tax Credit for investors who want to rehab or start a business in a low income area. There are ways to lure vendors over to LR.
Of course having pretty vegetable on a shelf is not the cure all. There are studies that show that just because more food options are offered that doesn’t mean that consumption will automatically increase. That’s understandable. You can’t just drop a rutabaga in someone’s kitchen and expect a meal to be made from it. You have to consider things like presentation, placement of the produce in the store, offering “deals”, and teaching folks how to prepare the food. Dr. Deborah Cohen highlights in her book A Big Fat Crisis (recommended by HoCo Well and Wise by the way) that cooking demonstrations are one of the most attractive highlights of “the Supermarket of the Future”. Who doesn’t love a demo where you can taste test for free? Cohen states “if supermarkets provided cooking demonstrations, samples, and recipes, many more families, would likely expand the variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains they would eat, which could lead to substantial improvements in the American diet across all social classes.” She’s got some serious research to back up that statement in her book so I’ll go with that.
Personally, I would love to see a retro thing happen in Long Reach as far as food goes. Let’s bring back the days before we had a supermarket. I’m talking Mayberry times. It would be mega cool to see a co-op of sorts with four main stores; a bakery, a meat market, a produce store, and a general store for other grocery needs. Buy a membership to the co-op, enjoy the savings, invest in your community, support small businesses that Howard County is known for. Damn the big boxes! I would even add on a flower shop, bookstore and consignment stores later. Have cooking demos in the courtyard during the spring and summer months. Maybe slide in a satellite office for Howard County General Hospital’s pediatric and adolescent care (that has nothing to do with food and nutrition but since I’m fantasizing here I might as well get it all out).
For those of you who don’t live here, please know that work is being done now to start the process of revitalization of this village center. The powers that be are taking in all kinds of ideas and listening to the community feedback. I just want to be sure more people get it. After all, this is suppose to be “Healthy Howard”. Let’s work to make sure that Long Reach fits right in with that theme. So that’s my rambling for now. Feel free to comment, share, or ‘Like’ this post as you see fit. Peace!!