Years ago, not even fresh into the pre-pubescent stage, I received an abrupt and continuing education in what is referred to in some circles as “food redlining.” Living in very urban, working class North Philadelphia, corner convenience stores and the occasional liquor retailer were abundant, lining every visible block along the Broad Street corridor where I lived. Access to an assortment of Tasty Kakes (Philly’s finest), Now and Laters, BBQ chips and a diversity of sweetened, carbonated beverages was the norm. This was the age of junk food excess, when crunching frantically on a bag of spicy pork rinds was a common sound on many sidewalks, school buses and subway platforms.
Not in my house, though. We stayed true to real food, kept it raw and as organic as a humble salary could take it, with fridge stocked to top with the healthiest we knew healthy to be at the time. These were early lessons in good eating habits. Pickiness was a crime. Fruits and vegetables: a daily ritual. This was normal; watching cats race to the corner store for a bag of chips seemed abnormal.
However, what stood out from those years is the way my grandmother shopped for groceries. It was very methodical, an extreme lesson in urban politics and sociology for a kid my age. Although we lived only moments away from a major neighborhood grocery store, she refused to shop there and insisted on driving nearly ten miles away into the much Whiter suburbs. I couldn’t understand this, sometimes irritated by the distance while fascinated by the bigger houses, which triggered a constant conversation on the way.
“Why do we have to go so far out to buy food?”
“Because, food where we live is not good. It’s unhealthy. Out here, they get better, healthier food. And they pay less for it.”
Years later, paying bills and raising family, that lesson became clearer. She wasn’t a policy analyst, but she was spot-on familiar with key social trends at the time (still is).
This year presented much focus on childhood obesity and nutrition as a key focus of the Obama Administration. While First Lady Michelle Obama heads White House efforts to reduce or eliminate childhood obesity within a generation, Congress will attempt to pass a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. The Senate is prioritizing childhood hunger as a part of that, introducing S. 3307 or the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The House has its version introduced as H.R. 5504 or Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act. Overseeing federal Child Nutrition programs such as the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), State Administrative Expenses (SAE), and the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Child Nutrition Act expires every five years, as it did in 2009. An extension was set till September 30, 2010. Congress’ ability to pass it before mid-term elections remains uncertain. Despite bi-partisan support, Republicans are still balking over deficit spending – and this may require a few billion dollars worth of federal lifting.
There’s no doubt childhood nutrition is a priority. But, are policy initiatives focused on the significance of food redlining and price gouging in minority neighborhoods? While the White House Task Force is applauded for its focus on “… ensuring access to healthy, affordable food,” it’s not yet clear on how we’ll go about providing access. Not mentioned is the issue of “food redlining,” as described above, where urban neighborhoods are stuck with little access to quality grocery stores. When those stores arrive, poor or working class neighborhoods are subjected to products they can’t afford and, adding insult to injury, food that’s not as fresh.
This isn’t just confined to inner-city neighborhoods. As White flight reverses back into the cities, and many minorities, particularly African Americans, are moving into cheaper suburban housing, “food redlining” can be found in some major suburbs, as well. A prime example is the affluent, predominantly Black Washington, D.C.-suburb of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Chain stores such as Safeway, Giant and Shoppers Food Warehouse are common, but one can find cheaper, fresher and more diverse food selections in predominantly White areas in places like Northern Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland and Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Novelty organic food stores like Whole Foods, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s refuse to build stores in PG County, despite public demands from elected officials and many Black customers who travel long distances to shop at these locations. M.O.M’s Organic recently opened a location in the North PG County city of Bowie, MD, but that’s on the border with a much Whiter Crofton in Anne Arundel County.
Over the next few months as Congress moves to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, I’ll be examining the issue of food access and pricing more closely.