So, I live in Harlem, New York City, home to countless Black and Latino folks. Itâ€™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 â€œgrocery storesâ€ that could fit in my living room back home in the Midwest. Oh, and tons of crappy fast food and soul food, as if thatâ€™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 weightâ€”Iâ€™m already a SB, thank you very muchâ€”but because our system is not concerned with providing nutritious food to citizens so much as making money).
Iâ€™ve longed complained that I canâ€™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 donâ€™t buy seafood around here at all if itâ€™s not from a fish market because it isnâ€™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 Iâ€™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 isnâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t be able to maintain profit margins, followed the money. Confined to small spacesâ€”because square footage is a premium hereâ€”the stores that are left have little space to offer variety. And what they do offer is overpriced crap.
Itâ€™s not all in my head; in the 90s, NYCâ€™s Department of Consumer Affairs conducted a study of the cityâ€™s stores and found that while affluent neighborhoods averaged one supermarket for every 6,580 people, the poorest â€™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. â€œThe 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,â€ says study author Kimberly Morland, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.
And itâ€™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 â€œconveniently located markets with fresh produce.â€
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 donâ€™t use them, they canâ€™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.
If you like Kenryaâ€™s opinion, check out the rest of her posts here.