In this season of festivities, the Washington region is awash in receptions, dinners, and other gatherings prominently featuring pork and other fatty meats, high cholesterol starches and alcohol of all varieties.
Health experts are concerned that this ritualistic feeding frenzy is a contributing factor to the increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, particularly amongst youth, African Americans, and Latinos in the nation’s capitol.
While the District’s adult obesity rate is just 21.7 percent (the country’s second lowest), when the overweight rate is combined with the rate of obesity, according to a report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 54.8 percent of District residents fall within this pool. This data also suggests that over a third of the District’s adults who are either African American or low income (earning less than $15,000 per year) are obese. Moreover, the report indicates that 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the District are obese, more than quadruple the rate two generations ago.
While the quantity of food consumed and physical exercise are major contributors to the rise of obesity in the nation’s capitol, some point to the absence of healthy food sources as a critical factor in the District’s poor health stats.
Experts such as Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, who directs Leadership for Healthy Communities, refers to the scarcity of quality foods, particularly in African American and Latino neighborhoods as “healthy food deserts.” While a desert usually conjures up images of sand, blowing shrubs, and plains with no water, Rockeymoore and other health advocates correctly describe “food deserts” as places where fresh food (produce and meats) is difficult to obtain. However, in these same neighborhoods,fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Chinese carry-outs, and small convenience stores are abundant. Rockeymoore contends these calorie-rich, but vitamin-deficient food sources in low income neighborhoods are particular contributors to the disproportionate health issues faced by residents of these communities.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods where the closest supermarket is more than one mile from their homes.
What causes food desertification?
While it would be nice to have healthy food options like Whole Foods, Wegmans, and Trader Joe’s in every neighborhood in the District, the fact of the matter is that “certain stores tend not to locate in area where they don’t believe there is adequate demand by their target customers to support them,” says Rockeymoore.
Perhaps not by coincidence, Rockeymoore’s husband, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) last year co-sponsored H.R. 4971, Greening Food Deserts Act, to encourage local agricultural production and increase the availability of fresh food in urban areas.
Such efforts by federal and local stakeholders to change the healthy food landscape can make a difference asserts Rockeymoore.
On the federal level, Rockeymoore points to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! project. In partnership with three key Departments: Treasury, USDA, and Health and Human Services, the initiative seeks to leverage public funds to support private efforts to bring healthy foods to underserved communities. Thus far, at least one local non-profit, the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, was awarded $800,000 to build a 20,000 square foot full-service grocery store in DC’s Ward 8.
Rockeymoore also highlights the work of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, a private coalition dedicated to increasing the availability and sales of healthy, affordable foods through small-scale stores in underserved communities. According to Rockeymoore, through this initiative, some DC area convenience stores have received funding to purchase refrigerators that allow them to carry and sale fresh fruits and vegetables to otherwise underserved.
The arts community also has a role to play according to Philadelphia-based natural foods culinary consultant turned filmmaker, Joni Bishop. Recently, Bishop produced “The Corner Store Kids,” a short documentary that reveals the connection between deplorable school lunches in inner cities and the relationship between students and the corner store. Bishop’s next project called Get Schooled, is an initiative that seeks to inspire hip-hip artists to take charge of promoting healthy and clean eating, losing weight.
This is the type of effort that advocates like Rockeymoore believe is essential to address the healthy food deserts that permeate neighborhoods in the District, Maryland, and Virginia alike.
Rockeymoore predicts that even after the area’s new planned Walmart stores are constructed, there are still going to be a dearth of full-scale supermarkets. Thus, she suggests innovative strategies for bringing fresh and healthy foods into food deserts such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, and mobile healthy food trucks and carts.
Perhaps this holistic approach to replacing food deserts with healthy food valleys, and making healthy eating fresh and cool, will be the right formula for ending obesity and other chronic diseases that plague African Americans and low income residents of the Washington region in the new year and beyond.