By Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss
When I was about 5 or so, I used to go to my grandmother’s house during the day while my Mother went to work. I remember catching the bus and sleeping across my Mom’s lap until we got there, and then her hugging me and heading off to do whatever it was she did all day. (I was five. Clearly, I had no idea.)
Grandma was cool, but there was always a bajillion people at her house. She lived in the projects*, and spent a big portion of her day being “Mama”to everyone even though she was well into her 50s.
I remember, as a kid, how the big thing was for us to run across the street to the convenient store and get a Big Red pop and a bag of chips. All for $0.50. I mean, it was how we spent every afternoon. Because Grandma’s house was full of people, it was never hard for me to get a hold of two quarters – ahhh, two shiny, glorious quarters – so that I could be like the rest of the kids and sit in the middle of the grass and eat my funyuns or my munchos and my Big Red pop.
(I’m from the Midwest. We say pop, thank you very much.)
It wasn’t that I was Grandma’s favorite, but…. well, I was Grandma’s favorite. She invested a lot of time and effort into me. She taught me to read – she’d hand me the newspaper and make me read every page out loud – and she taught me how to be a little lady. She taught me how to love, as a young girl, because outside of that typical adoration that a young girl has for her mother, you learn that that thing that binds you to Grandma emotionally and you understand it even more so once she’s gone. That made her valuable.
However, I must admit. If there’s one thing I don’t remember, it’s going to a grocery store with Grandma. We just.. we never went together. At least, we didn’t go to a grocery store as I know a grocery store to be today. The only store I ever saw her go to was the convenient store across the street.
And now that I think about it, there’s a lot of things I don’t remember about that time with Grandma.
I don’t remember a lot of cooking going on. I don’t even know that I remember any fresh vegetables there. I mean, I remember my Great Grandma – my Grandma’s mother – having that gorgeous garden in her fenced-off backyard, but Grandma didn’t have that kind of backyard. The soil didn’t even have grass on it. It was just hard dirt. I know. I fell on it and scraped myself up a few times.
I guess that’s to be expected. It’s not like it was quality, “prime” real estate or anything. It’s not even like anyone cares to maintain the area. I guess.
I remember running to one particular house in the building in the back of the projects where the free lunch was given out. Bologna, milk, cheese, bread, and little mustard packets to dress the makeshift sandwiches. All the kids used to make a mad dash back there because they were always limited in how much they had and how many kids would be able to sit in there, and if you were last, you went hungry.
As a different woman today, I can acknowledge that that housing project community was a food desert. That even though Grandma was doing all she could to make sure I never went hungry, there was rarely a vegetable on the plate. Even though she meant very well and did the best that she could, I know I picked up a lot of bad habits from that time in my life.
In fact, it sounds a lot like this paragraph from the NYTimes blog:
Poor urban neighborhoods in America are often food deserts — places where it is difficult to find fresh food. There are few grocery stores; people may do all their shopping at bodegas, where the only available produce and meat are canned peaches and Spam. If they want fruits and vegetables and chicken and fish, they have to take a bus to a grocery store. The lack of fresh food creates a vicious cycle; children grow up never seeing it or acquiring a taste for it. It is one reason that the poor are likelier to be obese than the rich. [source]
When I hear people complain about the cost of fresh food and use this as an excuse to not eat it, it makes me think about those projects where so many people who were, actually, given money by the government to eat couldn’t even access the healthy food. My Grandma, while she might’ve been able to catch a bus to hit the grocery store, might’ve had difficulty doing this since she was the family babysitter. Her, four kids (one of them facing a mental disability), and countless bags with enough food to feed the numerous people that’d be in and out of her house to eat? On the bus? You’re joking, right?
Whenever we talk about problems with our food system, we often talk about access… and yeah, we might toss around the phrase “food desert,” but is that ever quantified? Are the ramifications of growing up in a food desert ever discussed? Do places like the Morris Brown projects ever come up for discussion? Or are they never mentioned because it’s assumed they don’t matter?
A while back, I wrote the following:
I can specifically remember a time when I lived in a food desert, and the only food store nearby was a gas station. My daughter was on formula at the time, and I used to purchase that in bulk and have that shipped. For myself, though, it was whatever I could get at the store. A bag of chips for breakfast, a bag of chips for lunch, a bowl of ice cream for dinner. If I wanted to go to the grocery, I had to either beg one of my girls to take me or call a taxi. I eventually called the taxi and cut back on groceries so that I could afford the ride, but… it was a lonnng time before I came to that realization.
It made perfect sense, though, that the grocery stores would be on the other side of town from me. The area where I lived was wholly college students living on that good ol’ beer and pizza diet… as evidenced by the abundance of pizza joints, sub shops and drive-thru liquor stores. The stores that a young Mom like me needed… were at least two miles away. With no car, that was quite the struggle.
But if you think about it, isn’t that how Capitalism works? When there is a demand, the promise of profit guarantees that there will always be someone willing and able to jump in and fulfill that need, right? In my neighborhood, there was a high demand for pizza joints and liquor stores. That’s what the college kids wanted. I was the random weird outlier with an infant in a college apartment complex.
The reason that food deserts exist is because it is assumed that the people in those geographic locations cannot afford the products that a fresh food-selling store would provide. This is also an automatic assumption of the projects, because the implication is “if these people had any money, they wouldn’t be living in the projects after all.”
That’s just how Capitalism works. Big C. Supply goes where the demand is located. If there’s no money, then clearly there’s no demand off which the investor can profit.
My question, really, is what do we gain from denying the realities of food deserts? How do we benefit from silencing the voices of the un-privileged? If we can identify that fresh food is expensive, why wouldn’t we want to hear from the people most affected by that? If we deny the fact that food deserts exist, you silence the input of those of us who have been affected by this problem the most. Those of us who have been on government assistance and live in still-impoverished areas offer up the critique of the system that says that the government is giving away money to be spent on the very things making us ill and preventing us from healing ourselves.
We also shoot ourselves in our collective feet when we decide to downplay food deserts because it prevents us from ever finding a solution to the problem. What about offering incentives to investors – franchise, corporate and otherwise – who build in food deserts? Why can’t we do that? Why not offer incentives up the chain – tax incentives for security measures (since a lot of these places fear theft and property damage), incentives for the space of the store dedicated solely to fresh produce? We can’t do that because we’re too busy debating their existence. Y’all know I have a problem with that.
So, it saddens me to know that the big politicians that I vote for to get the big checks are not offering up the answers that we need to solve this problem in particular, especially since they’re never walking through (or helicoptering through, even) the projects (or a trailer park, or a low-income community in general) to see what struggles people like this face. Realistically speaking, they’re facing the same struggles that “middle-class” Americans are facing. Middle-class America , for the most part, just knows how to hide it better. If anything would’ve taught us that, it would be the up-spring of foreclosure signs in our very nice, quaint neighborhoods.