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Politrix: You Are Where You Eat

So, I live in Harlem, New York City, home to countless Black and Latino folks. It’s what you would call an urban neighborhood, with a mix of projects, small apartment buildings, four-unit brownstones and new high-rise condos.

It also has plenty of bodegas (corner stores, typically run by Dominicans and cats who claim to be from politically-neutral Yemen) and raggedy “grocery stores” that could fit in my living room back home in the Midwest. Oh, and tons of crappy fast food and soul food, as if that’s all we like to eat. The problem? I read Skinny Bitch over the holiday weekend and am now officially vegetarian (no, not to lose weight—I’m already a SB, thank you very much—but because our system is not concerned with providing nutritious food to citizens so much as making money).

I’ve longed complained that I can’t buy produce from any of the awful stores near me because it goes bad before I get it home (no, seriously), not to mention the fact that the pesticides make my husband sick to his stomach and trigger my asthma. And I straight up don’t buy seafood around here at all if it’s not from a fish market because it isn’t safe. Add to that the fact that the chicken is pumped with antibiotics and the milk is flooded with the bovine growth hormone, and you see my issue. But the problem is amplified now that I’m striving to go totally organic and meat and animal byproduct free. My choices are limited: suck it up and eat the unhealthy fare that I am offered close to home, or travel to more affluent neighborhoods and spend my money there. Both are unpalatable.

This isn’t a new issue. As whites moved to the suburbs in the years following World War II (termed white flight), many of the high-quality stores followed them, leaving minorities behind packed into densely populated cities. Many chains associate minority with poor, and, thinking that they wouldn’t be able to maintain profit margins, followed the money. Confined to small spaces—because square footage is a premium here—the stores that are left have little space to offer variety. And what they do offer is overpriced crap.

It’s not all in my head; in the 90s, NYC’s Department of Consumer Affairs conducted a study of the city’s stores and found that while affluent neighborhoods averaged one supermarket for every 6,580 people, the poorest ’hoods in Brooklyn had just one market for every 17,232 folks. And then those businesses charged 8.8% more for the food they carried, which was attributed to less bulk buying and a lack of competition to drive prices down. The number looks even worse when race is made explicit; another study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year showed that there are four times as many supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods as in Black ones. And the same study found that Blacks are less likely to have transportation, which multiplies the affect. “The lack of private transportation and supermarkets in low-wealth and predominantly Black neighborhoods suggests that residents of these neighborhoods may be at a disadvantage when attempting to achieve a healthy diet,” says study author Kimberly Morland, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.

And it’s having a real affect on our well-being: A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that women in poor neighborhoods are 1.9 times more likely to have heart disease than those in richer areas, a fact that they attribute in part to a lack of “conveniently located markets with fresh produce.”

So what can we do? Patronize the healthy restaurants and health food stores that do pop up in our neighborhoods so they can survive and thrive, for one. If we don’t use them, they can’t keep up with the rent and they fade away. And if you live in an area where produce stands are common, buy from them, after verifying their growing practices. Then contact your local representatives and tell them to offer tax incentives to stores that carry a more desirable selection, such as Whole Foods, Fairway and Trader Joes, so they will set up shop near you. More immediately, join or start a natural food co-op in your neighborhood, so you can be sure where your nutrients are coming from and contribute to a communal project that benefits all. Happy eating.

—Kenrya

If you like Kenrya’s opinion, check out the rest of her posts here.

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  • morena

    I know your pain. I went vegan for 6 months and things you are complaining about were similar to mine. But when you treat what you put in your body as important as running to a sample sale, your life thanks you 10 fold. I felt like my mind was so much clearer when I went green.

    I did start eating meat again. But not a lot. And it the reason was more so because of conveniece. Hence the point of your blog. I don’t buy meat. And if I do, I buy chemical free meat. I know I will go back to vegan soon, and hopefully next time it will be for good.

  • finkies

    i’m lucky to live in a part of the city that, though considered to be “east africa”, has its own weekly farmers market and a grocery store receptive to introducing products requested by customers. in the 3+ years i’ve lived on my block, i’ve seen our grocery store introduce a lot more organic and healthy foods. however, i think nothing beats the freshness of farmers market produce and fairway is just as good as whole foods for me (and actually cheaper than the local key foods and c-town). I think, when possible, supporting farmers markets/local farmers is the way to go, though — fruits and veggies last longer and there seems to be more variety.

    that being said, i think its awful the fresh, quality food is a luxury rather than a right for people. it shouldn’t be such a chore to find quality produce.

  • Diane

    Yep, the convenience of a store places you at the mercy of the distributors etc. Empire chickens are good (and not available down here). I know you can get them in NYC. Course that means you’re not a vegan…

    Not that I want to drain your pocketbook K – but you can order online from those places you list – and have it delivered. Maybe seeing a truck with ‘that’ name on it, will have neighbors getting on the wagon.

    I don’t have a problem with frozen veggies (organic) and those are available. They are fresher than ‘local’ if you don’t know when items are picked, where stored, how old they are.

    Heck I have a farm right down the road – and they are not cheap. It’s sometimes too much food, as they don’t provide less than, say, a pound, of whatever. My brother picks nine pounds of strawberries in 1/2 an hour. OK, but I need maybe 10 strawberries, not pounds. And no making a pie won’t work cuz then I will eat it.

    And said farm doesn’t sell to the grocery 2 miles away. Go freakin figure. And their ‘stand’ on the road by said grocery has what I see as leftovers from days past pickins. You’d think it would be different.

    Seems down here they think I’m coming home every night to prepare fresh items (if I join a coop, it’s pricey and I get pounds of food per week). I just don’t eat that much in summer.

    But I digress. If you were still in the ‘burbs working, K, I’d suggest some of the local stores in and around the old haunt. Alas, that would be quite the journey from where you are now.