Exploring America’s Food Deserts
Come and take it.
— Popular slogan seen on flags all over Texas
What’s a “food desert?”
Yesterday, we set out to find one…right here in the land of plenty. More on that below, but first…
Passing through the U.S. is always a treat for your Australian-born editor. We’re treated to feelings of awe… confusion… befuddlement… inspiration… horror… amazement… and more confusion.
Not always in that order. And often all at the same time.
But let’s start at the beginning. The flight up from Buenos Aires is a solid 10 hours. There’s one a day (with our preferred carrier)—always overnight. Ideally, you go to sleep at one end of the Americas…and wake up at the other.
The time change is also minor, so there’s no jet lag. It’s just an hour or two, depending on daylight savings. The differences culturally… economically… “automotively,” however, are enormous.
To the last point, your editor doesn’t own a car in Buenos Aires (or anywhere else). Too much hassle. Instead, we walk where we need to go. Or take a taxi…or “Uber” it. (The ride-sharing company arrived on the pampas a few weeks before we left.)
Here in the U.S., it’s different. This is a nation of drivers. One connected by a vast and impressive interstate highway system…built on a road-trip tradition…and a world-leading (at one time) automotive industry.
For tens of millions of people, the modern American experience is all about suburban living and peak hour commutes. It’s a lifestyle enabled—thus far—by cheap oil and cheaper auto loans.
This is a “car culture,” in other words. For better or worse.
Here in Texas, we notice hardly anybody walks anywhere…except to and from their cars. Pedestrians are like rare animals…or maimed ones that have fallen behind the thundering steel herd.
While stateside, we make like the locals; that is, we rent a SUV…something American, like a Jeep Grand Cherokee or a Ford Explorer or a great big Chevy something-or-other…
It’s not that we care, necessarily, that a vehicle is made in this country or any other…we just like the “authentic” experience. As for the size, heading out on the Texan highways without a big hulking car is like heading off to confession without sin in your heart, or in to politics without ulterior motives on your mind. It’s simply unheard of.
So we get a big rig…and we “fill ‘er up”…and we imagine what it must be like to live here in Houston, right on the buckle of the Bible belt.
Would we live in a McMansion-sized home…with a McMansion-sized mortgage? Would we drive to an office downtown during the week…and mow our lawn in the ‘burbs on the weekend? Would we enjoy oversized meals…evidenced by an oversized waste line?
It’s certainly the popular choice here. Which makes us think…it might not be for us. (Your editor rarely understands the popular. See feelings of “confusion,” “befuddlement,” and “more confusion,” above.)
But we were talking about “food deserts.” Maybe you’ve already heard of them. We hadn’t, until a few days ago.
The USDA defines food deserts 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.”
Hmm…a food desert in a land famously battling obesity? It sounded like a bit of a stretch. So we went to take a look for ourselves…
We checked an interactive map from the local paper online, spotted one of these “nutritional wastelands,” and set off.
We drove over the “dividing line,” heading west from Bellaire…over Chimney Rock Road…away from the pristine lawns and manicured hedges…from the U-shaped driveways and wrought iron gates…to the “other side of town.”
Not at all gradually, the landscape changed from lush green grass to grey-brown concrete…wide-open spaces to cramped, run-down apartment complexes…strip malls to strip bars.
No doubt about it. This was a rough neighborhood. And getting rougher by the block.
New and Used Tires… Cuban Cuisine… a Pet Hospital… Bargain Liquor #6… Buena Vista Apartments (Note: no “buena vista” in sight)… Pronto Tax… Texas Washateria… Western Union… Checks Cashed… “We Buy” Pawn Store… JJ’s Liquor… [name obscured] Luxury Apartments (note: bars on windows)… Auto Insurance… Cambian Cheques… Income Tax Checks Cashed… Lucky’s Liquor… Suave Kuts (hairdresser)… Public Service (lawyers)… MoneyGram… Valero Gas Station…
And lots of…pedestrians. Waiting at traffic lights. Hanging out on the curbside. Milling about. Approaching cars…
We decided to turn around and head back to the Cuban joint for a bite to eat. Our waitress, actually from El Salvador, seemed like she might know what’s up.
We asked her in our porteño Spanish whether she considered the area to be a “food desert.”
A “food what?” she replied, in better English than our Spanish.
“You know…a place where it’s tough to get healthy, nutritious food at a reasonable price.”
She looked at us, somewhat askance. We quickly realized our error…
“Not THIS restaurant, of course,” we rushed to assure her. “Obviously the food HERE is all those things. And more! I mean the general area. And further west. What’s the situation there?”
Her look softened…then her brow furrowed.
“Look…you can eat [expletive] if you want to. And plenty of people do. But you don’t have to…
“I get up at 6am every day to make sure we have fresh ingredients for our menu. Just look…
[Here the young woman pointed at the menu in front of us…running through the ingredients in the various dishes…]
“…we have soursop, caimito, pineapple, sapote, hicacos, guava, marañón (cashew apple), bananas, mangoes. Plus we use all the meats…and rice, wheat, potatoes, beans, and spices…well, I can’t tell you the spices. But everything we get is fresh. I can tell you that for sure.
“And it’s available. Yes. You just gotta want to eat well. Not hot dogs and that [expletive] from the 7/11 places and the gas stations and the liquor stores. That’s not healthy. You gotta choose right. That’s up to you.
“But a ‘food desert’ in this country? That’s crazy!”
More to come from the Bayou City…
There’s No Taste Like Home
By the staff of The Savvy Retiree Daily
When did it become a chore and financial burden to simply eat healthy food? Calorie-sodden, nutritionally-benign fast food just keeps getting cheaper, and “healthy” food stores are charging you $6 for a jar of water with three pieces of asparagus in it. It’s times like this you have to take matters into your own hands (we’re big fans of taking matters into our own hands).
Growing your own food is one of the cornerstones of health independence, and even a small garden grown in a container or small flower bed can make a real difference to your diet and wallet. You could even start sticking some of your home-grown asparagus in water, sell it for $6, and become a health-food tycoon. Here are our tips for small garden growing:
- Plant “cut and come again” producers: With your limited space, plants that keep growing as you harvest will be your bread and butter (so to speak). Think leafy veg that you can harvest leaves off, beans and peas that grow faster the more you pick, and bulbs that break up into smaller cloves.
- Grow what you like to eat: This may seem obvious but people tend to grow what they can instead of what they want. There’s no point in growing kale if you think it tastes like old Elton John wigs.
- Grow expensive varieties: Try to grow the most expensive veggies you tend to buy at your local store. Having your own supply of mangetout or shallots will shave serious bucks off that grocery bill.
- Grow something weird: Grocery stores have a tendency to sell the choice few varieties they know sell well. You, however, can grow whatever you want. Why not try some scarlet kale or purple sprouting broccoli?