by Sara O'Hara
Unloading my groceries from my car a few weeks ago, looking out at the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan, I was struck by the realization that I dreaded carrying my purchases all the way to the house. It just seemed to be so much work. But then I reminded myself of the blessings of living in Sheboygan County - the beaches, the wonderful people and the myriad of experiences available. That thought was quickly tempered by the realization that if I didn't own a car, I would be living in a near-desert - a food desert, that is.
A food desert is an area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain. Residents of food deserts must travel by car, bus or foot to access healthful food. Low-income families are less likely to be able to afford and access healthful foods, and more likely to purchase inexpensive fats and sugars over fresh fruits and vegetables that are more expensive on a per-calorie basis. The elderly and children face a higher likelihood of being food-insecure, which can put their health in jeopardy and set them up for future ailments.
My husband and I decided to experience what it might be like to live in a food desert. Last week, we walked one-and-a-half miles from our house, to find a grocery store that offers fresh fruit and vegetables. On the way, we passed a convenience store, coffee shops, liquor stores, and fast-food restaurants. None of these regularly offers the nutritional value that shoppers can find in a full-service grocery store, and yet they are often where families with low incomes and lacking transportation purchase their food. Partly because of this, low-income populations suffer statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related conditions.
Peoples’ choices about eating are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford, and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap "meat" and dairy-based foods high in fat, sugar and salt. Processed foods (like snack cakes, chips and soda) typically sold by corner delis, convenience stores and liquor stores are usually just as unhealthy.
Researchers have determined that distance to food can also have a psychological component that impacts the food choices people make. The physical distance from fresh foods leads residents of food deserts to be more likely to purchase food from stores or corner shops that stock mainly cheap, processed foods or foods high in fats and sugars.
To create a healthy relationship with food, researchers recommend creating a direct connection between fresh produce and consumers. Examples of such a connection are urban farm programs, farmers’ markets and including healthful foods in school lunches.
The good news for Sheboygan County is that most of us have relatively good access to grocery stores, and there are some great programs that improve the access of vulnerable populations to healthy food. Every Wednesday and Saturday during the summer, there is a farmers’ market in Fountain Park. The Sheboygan Area School District and Boys & Girls Clubs, with help from Nourish and the United Way, are making sure that youngsters receive healthy meals each day, and teaching them to prepare and eat healthy food. It’s great that we live in an oasis of caring people, and not in a food desert.
If you would like more information on the Summer Nourishment program – or would like to volunteer to help serve meals – call Tina Schuh at 920.912.2593.