BY MARJORIE STEWART
Desert, swamp or mirage? Of food, that is. Food deserts, areas you have to drive out of to buy food, have been getting a lot of attention, but it’s now recognized that food swamps, or areas where you can get a lot of unhealthy food, are a bigger problem.
Breast milk is full of sugar and fat to feed the fast-growing infant but when we wean the infants the cravings remain. Advertisers and swamp retailers have capitalized on the human desire for sugar and fat, resulting in massive support for the cravings, leading to addictive behaviours when faced with the temptations. It’s no surprise that foods high in sugars and fats deliver comfort when people are under stress and what greater stress is there than not having enough money in a globalized economy?
Low-income areas have plenty of swamp retailers, from convenience stores to fast food outlets, within easy walking range for people with less money to spend on healthy foods. Foods like pizza, chicken nuggets and fries are therefore both cheaper and closer than the healthy foods. And so are all the sweet treats, especially chocolate and sugary drinks. Obesity and diabetes are among the results.
The economy is a dynamic set of assumptions based on what people seem to be doing. If people are buying cheap food, the economy reacts by providing more cheap food, thus solidifying their level of purchasing strength. Prices are set without consideration for the health of the consumer and the consumer is trapped in the cycle of cheapness.
North Americans prize individual responsibility for choices, but this preference cannot help people once caught in monetary loops which exclude them from the full range of choices. Even the most diehard free-enterpriser will see that there is something very wrong with systems leading people into dollar stores to buy over-processed foods. And the soaring price of housing leaves less and less space for food in people’s budgets.
In addition to lack of good food in the deserts and over-abundance of cheap junk food in the swamps, the next pieces in the cycle are the food mirages that come with gentrification of formerly poor neighbourhoods. Along with the well-to-do new inhabitants come high-end markets catering to exotic food trends but not providing familiar, simple foodstuffs for the people with lower incomes. And expensive restaurants where original inhabitants cannot afford to eat. These are the mirages: you can see the food but you can’t afford it. The price of your modest home may have risen but where are you going to go and what will it cost you and your children?
What’s really important is to make sure that there’s nutritional food available at reasonable cost to people.
Some solutions include subsidies for healthy food; non-profit groceries, sometimes with mobile sales vehicles.
Given the impacts of soaring housing costs, policies to protect citizens marginalized by unreasonable demand will soon be on the table.