“Not Even A Tomato”

     “I just want to peek inside real quick. Okay?” I said. The plastic sign read “Village Pantry,” with a big red tomato on it. It was right around the corner from an apartment I was considering, and I was curious to see what I would be dealing with.

     “Of course,” my dad agreed with a laugh, as I jumped out of the car and through the doors of the corner store. I quickly darted up and down the isles, glancing at beef jerky, chips, and candy bars. I picked up a sandwich or two in the “Bistro” case, noting the offsite packaging plant.

     After my curiosity was satisfied, I walked out of the store and back to my car.

     “Did they have a good organic section?” Dad joked.

     “Not even a tomato,” I replied before pulling out of the parking lot, “or a can of beans to stock the pantry.”

But I exaggerate, there was in fact tomato on the sandwich and a few pantry staples in the corner of the corner store, but it wasn’t a place to do grocery shopping. Yet, this is exactly the kind of store many who inhabit food deserts turn to, for basic food needs.

The USDA has generated an intriguing map that indicates food accessibility and food deserts through an analysis of income levels, proximity to supermarkets, and vehicle accessibility. If you are interested the map can be found here:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas.aspx

I recently moved from Norfolk, VA to Indianapolis, IN. My neighborhood back in Norfolk, was on that map. Living in a food desert was not a fact I gave much thought to at first. There was a grocery store, a 10 minute drive away; 3 more within 15 minutes, with better produce sections. And then my car broke down, and I didn’t have the money to fix it for a few months. The 10 minute drive turned into a 25 minute bus ride or 45 minute walk. The first time I tried to make the trip, I bought these 4 beautiful, vine ripened tomatoes. I got home with one, bruised one.

All the sudden the way I ate and the way I planned my grocery trips drastically changed. I found myself making due at the corner store and relying on the kindness of others to get fresh produce. I remember being near tears, once, as I botched the glaze for some muffins I was making for a potluck, because I had used my last orange.

But I don’t tell this story to martyr myself. I didn’t have it bad, my situation was temporary and more of a diet inconvenience than a health impact. I tell this story to remind us how quickly and easily things change.

I tell you this story in hopes it makes you think and question. How long does it take you to get to the grocery store? Is it easier to get fast food? How does your elderly neighbor get there? Why are some neighborhoods without grocery stores?

Hunger and low food accessibility are not so obvious.

The Center for Disease Control defines food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” But what does living in a food desert actually mean?

It means not being able to run to the store when you forget the key ingredient in dinner. It means not having the luxury to choose between an apple and an orange, much less organic and conventional. It means not stocking up on frozen vegetables, because they will thaw on the bus ride home. It means frustration when you hear about how to eat healthier, because you know you can’t buy the foods they are advocating. It means not having healthy foods for after school snacks, because all the corner store carries is chips and cookies. It means that your choices for dinner are a sandwich from the “bistro” case, a can of soup with 70% of your daily recommendation of sodium, or a number 3 at the fast food joint.

It means a whole lot of moments that seem like small inconveniences, but add up to large health impacts.