By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Frozen burritos, Twinkies, Doritos, microwave-ready meats and all other the processed foods that fill the shelves of neighborhood bodegas provide shoppers will little hope of a balanced diet.
Despite an abundance of food in this country, an increasing number of people, especially those living in inner cities, have limited access to healthy food.
It’s a problem the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Kids First, the Southside Community Land Trust and other local organizations are attempting to solve.
“We now spend more money on health care than we do on food,” said Amelia Rose, the lead organizer for the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. “As a society, we used to spend a larger percentage on food and less on health care.”
For many activists, such as Rose and Jenn Baumstein, the food systems coordinator for Farm Fresh Rhode Island, access to healthy food is a human rights issue that calls for a locally driven and organized response.
“Access to healthy foods should be a basic human right,” Rose said. “Instead, people of color and low-income families have easy access to unhealthy foods.”
To help solve that problem, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, a mostly volunteer organization, is working with corner storeowners in Providence to have them reduce their junk-food inventory by 5 percent.
“We want to get these owners to care more about selling healthy foods,” Rose said. “We’re working with them on ways to improve the quality of the foods they sell.”
Since the 1980s, however, the role of neighborhood variety stores has changed. These inner-city mainstays used to feature meat, dairy and produce, but now primarily sell cigarettes, lottery tickets, phone cards and junk food.
This shift in what merchants stocked occurred for a variety of reasons. Demand for tobacco and snack foods increased; many small storeowners found it difficult to sell fresh foods because they lacked experience with produce and other perishables; and corner stores rely heavily on nonperishable foods that have a longer shelf life.
A super loss
The loss of inner-city supermarkets during the past 40 years, as urban populations shifted to the suburbs, leaving fewer people and reduced purchasing power in cities, left residents of low-income urban neighborhoods with limited access to high-quality food and fewer options.
In these impoverished neighborhoods, healthier foods are harder to find and they often are more expensive. Conversely, nutrient-starved processed foods are easily accessible and much easier to find.
Affordable housing, public safety, education and economic opportunities dominate community development issues, and rightfully so, but seldom are basic concerns, such as the amount of diesel pollution being spewed into a particular neighborhood or how accessible is quality food, planned for or even discussed.
A good indicator of any neighborhood’s well-being, however, is how its residents feed themselves.
For many urban-area residents who rely on public transportation, junk-food filled convenience stores and fast-food joints are their only real options.
In South Providence, for example, where more than one out of three families lives in poverty, only five convenience and grocery stores sell whole fruit, vegetables and 1 percent milk, and most residents live a quarter-mile to a half-mile away from one of them, according to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island.
To further illustrate the point, Rose noted that there is one supermarket for about 44,000 West Side residents while the 35,000 or so residents of the East Side of Providence have four supermarkets to choose from.
In fact, middle- and upper-income neighborhoods have 2.26 times as many supermarkets per capita than low-income neighborhoods, according to a report by the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.
Unhealthy diets hurt everyone
A diet low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed foods, especially those containing high-fructose corn syrup, increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other health problems. Poor dietary habits also contribute to this country’s obesity epidemic and add strain to an already-ailing health-care system.
While obesity — and all the ills linked to it, from cardiovascular disease and hypertension to diabetes, gout and arthritis — is influenced by a variety of factors, such as heredity, eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle, nutrition experts believe part of the problem among the urban poor is their limited access to healthy foods.
That is why the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Farm Fresh Rhode Island and others are focused on creating community-based ways of producing food in an affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.
They stress the importance of small, local farms, and healthy food options at public schools. They are working with high school and college students on the importance of providing access to healthy foods for everyone.
Farm Fresh promotes farmers’ markets, community gardens and local food production by Rhode Island’s more than 600 farms.
Last year, several Farm Fresh-sponsored farmers’ markets began accepting food stamps — or electronic benefit transfer (EBT) as the program is now called — and this year, Baumstein said, these markets have experienced a 500 percent increase in the number of EBTs being used to buy local foods.
In June, Farm Fresh began its summer pilot season of Market Mobile, delivering food one day a week from 23 local farms and producers to the Providence, Newport and Narragansett areas. Since then, the program has served 54 customers, and recently passed $100,000 in sales.
Farm Fresh is working on expanding its winter farmers’ market — “if there’s a demand, Rhode Island farmers will meet it,” Baumstein said — and the nonprofit organization has had preliminary discussions about opening a centrally located “hub for local food.”
“Local food is more important than organic,” Baumstein said. “We need to increase access to local food in our underserved communities.”