The Myth of the Food Desert

President Obama's new school-lunch law is a good start, but healthy eating begins at home.

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Yet obesity is still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in Greenwich Village. Throughout the city, there are supermarkets amply stocked with fresh produce priced modestly, in struggling neighborhoods where the average weight of people is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side.

Another example: It was one thing to read four years ago about the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and low-fat milk. The idea was that people for whom these bodegas are their closest source of food would be healthier if they could buy fresher and less fatty food there. But it was another thing to follow up on the results (pdf). After two years, only one in four stores reported people buying more vegetables, and one in three reported people buying more fruit.

The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences and economics — a palate. Note that the economy is part of the equation: The cheapness of sugary drinks is notorious, thanks to the popularity and influence of the muckraking 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book Fast Food Nation, which was made into a movie in 2006.

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.