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Honest Dialogue about “Food Desert” Legislation

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In February and March, several organizations that I am a member of had legislative days at the state and national levels. For many years, I have participated with the pest control industry and women business owners’ legislative days in DC.

Coincidentally, both are usually held within days of each other every year. Because of my hectic schedule last month, I did not attend legislative events in DC that pertained to issues that regulate how I do business as a pest management professional or a woman-owned company.

But I did visit our state legislators to address issues that I felt strongly about professionally and morally. The voter registration ID bill reminds me of the Old South and legislating when a mother can breastfeed her baby sounded too much like “big government” overstepping. Because I blog about issues on the hill often, I was right at home with our state legislators, even this new crop of politicians. Many issues cherished by my family because of my grandfather’s contributions on the civil rights battlefield have been steamrolled by this group. I have shared my thoughts with many bill authors by phone, email, and in person. Bills regarding voting issues have wiped out years of voter rights activism.

Although not as important as bills pertaining to voting issues, the food desert legislation bill, left me with mixed feelings. It is a good idea but I do believe more education around food deserts is essential, and the community of color needs to be informed of the role it plays in getting this type of legislation momentum.

Food desert legislation has been a hot topic since our First Lady, Michelle Obama, kicked off her initiatives to tackle obesity in children. “Food deserts” are neighborhoods and areas of the country without supermarkets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Mrs. Obama, like many First Ladies before her, picked a cause that is close to her heart. She is raising awareness about childhood obesity and using her platform as First Lady of the United States to influence others to become involved to make a difference in stamping out childhood illness related to obesity.

The initiative named “Let’s Move” is celebrating its first year of raising our country’s consciences about what our children eat and how it impacts their health in the long term. Mrs. Obama kicked off the program by inviting children to the White House to plant a vegetable garden and to learn healthy eating habits from the White House chef.

Mrs. Obama’s program has cited statics that show one out of three children is overweight or obese. In African American and Hispanic homes, the number jumps to 40%. As children have gotten bigger, the number of children diagnosed with adolescent diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, and even cancer has increased significantly as well. Disease and chronic illnesses that 30 years ago were usually found in adults are plaguing kindergarten-age children.

Thirty years ago, most school-age children walked to school and played outside almost daily. Today, recess programs have been cut from most school budgets and children spends hours indoors playing video games or watching TV, engaging in less physical activity and eating more processed foods, Mrs. Obama addresses obesity and unhealthy eating habits among children by cheering for more outdoor play and exercise and stressing to families and schools to cook more nutritional meals.

Mrs. Obama has also encouraged more fresh vegetables be made available in inner cities and rural communities that have no grocery stores. Mrs. Obama drew the ire of conservatives when she spoke about lunch cafeterias serving more salads and baked foods. This was touted as being part of the President’s socialist intent to introduce the government into every aspect of our lives by suggesting healthy eating to school age children.

When Mrs. Obama spoke at an event in Philadelphia last year, many took note of her suggestion on how to deal with food desert areas of the country. She offered this solution:

“Let’s move to ensure that all families have access to healthy, affordable foods in their community,” she said. “[W]e’ve set an ambitious goal here: to eliminate food deserts in America within seven years…To do that,” she added, “we’re creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that’s going to invest $400 million a year—and leverage hundreds of millions more from the private sector—to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier options.”

Mrs. Obama offered this suggestion to help deal with an issue that is layered with many systemic problems. A broad idea that must start on the local level loses traction when we look at the issues that must be apportioned by state and local governing bodies and the mindset of neighborhoods and the communities that it will affect. Stating that we need a grocer to service a neighborhood so that the community can buy fresh vegetables and fruits sounds like a simple solution. But often we overlook the reasons why a neighborhood is without a grocer even though you have a buying customer base. I compare these scenarios to putting a cart without wheels before the horse; it is not moving…period.

If the community of color is honest, most minority neighborhoods without grocery stores are riddled with crime. This is the case even here in Nashville. At one point, almost every area of town had a grocery store. When busing became law, the suburbs started to flourish, leaving inner city areas without businesses. As the businesses grew in surrounding areas like Brentwood, Nashville neighborhoods became more and more infested with criminal activity. Stores were less and less willing to remain open in those areas. Business owners moved out. It is widely known that high crime rates coincide with lack of employment. High unemployment is usually associated with high high school dropout rates. Trying to figure it out is like trying to decide if the chicken or the egg came first. Crime, lack of education, and no jobs spin off situations like food deserts.

According to Let’s Move, when low income areas are food deserts, families tend to spend more money on calorie-laden fast foods or convenient foods found at corner markets that do not offer healthy choices. As more and more politicians are picking up the Let’s Move mantra, they must understand that addressing how to make a food desert area more attractive to business owners should be part of the dialogue as healthy lifestyles are discussed. These factors must be worked on simultaneously. That will show potential stakeholders that every angle of the problem is being thoroughly addressed and not just by throwing more money into another government program that will not transform a community, a corner, or even a child.

Trying to entice large conglomerates to invest millions into opening a neighborhood grocer takes years of planning. Marketing must be done to attract companies, and communities must prepare an educated workforce for employment. This is as critical as getting the children to eat healthy foods to prevent childhood obesity. At Let’s Move, seven years is cited as a timeframe to change an area. Putting all the pieces together takes a few years. That part is rarely cited by the critics of Mrs. Obama or food desert legislation advocates.

I commend the First Lady for making eating healthy a goal not only for children but for families in general. Healthy families lead more productive lives. Mrs. Obama is a role model for many women across the nation. Personally, she has encouraged me with her dedication to exercise and healthy eating. As many organizations begin taking up Mrs. Obama’s cause to fight childhood obesity, the groups need to be engaged in those communities. Meeting the needs of the community is vital to addressing systemic issues. As more people become aware of food desert legislation, let’s move with determined steps to break the cycle of crime, unemployment, and lack of education in our communities as we promote healthy living. Grassroots activists can transform lives and create changes that will be seen 30 years from now. We can’t do one without the other. For more info go to Let’s Move.

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About Genma Holmes