Nutrition in the Media

supermarketThe Nutrition section of Boston.com has recently been advising Bostonians on how to lead healthier lives, last week focusing on how to eat less salt. According to the article, the average American consumes over seven times the amount of sodium our bodies need to perform every day. In order to help the average American consumer less sodium, author Joan Salge Blake takes the reader step-by-step through the grocery aisles, recommending that consumers check the labels of their processed foods for sodium content and offering alternatives to salty marinades and dressings.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Blake suggest buying organic or shopping at local markets for unprocessed foods, despite her claim that “over 75 percent of the sodium we consume sneaks in from processed foods.” Instead, she suggests ways to reduce sodium intake that allow consumers to still eat prepackaged and factory-produced foods, and all the while still shopping at corporate supermarkets.

I find it odd that Blake does not advocate organic foods at all, but instead tries to work within the industrial food system to get Bostonians to eat healthier. I understand that local markets are not accessible to all, but increasing awareness about the health benefits of local foods cannot hurt. Those who are reading these article on Boston.com are already conscious about eating healthier. Thus would it not make sense to suggest local markets to the masses, subsequently creating a higher demand for local foods and hopefully (eventually) lowering prices?

This week’s article does, in fact, recommend starting a vegetable garden at home to all who are able to do so. Yet I had several issues with the 320-word piece:

1) it lists cost-saving and taste as the reasons for starting a garden, never mentioning nutrition or the health benefits of organic food

2) it does not explain how to start a garden, or which fruits and vegetables to plant in a New England climate, and

3) it lists no alternative for local foods if a person does not have the time or space to start a garden

If a person had no previous knowledge of the nutritional benefits of organic foods and were unable to start a garden of their own, she would see no reason to buy locally; the “cost-saving” factor would be irrelevant, as would be the idea that produce tastes better if you cultivate it yourself. The combination of this article and last week’s, which gives pointers on how keep a clean conscience while still shopping at a corporate grocery store–despite hinting that it is impossible to do so (Blake herself says processed food “sneaks” in extra sodium)–does not really advocate local and organic food.

Instead, the underlying message is that you should create a vegetable garden yourself to save money, and regardless of that, there is a perfectly fine way to stay healthy by intelligently shopping for processed foods. So while the intentions behind these pieces are certainly good, the reader is given no real reason to stop shopping at supermarkets. And considering the fact that those who have the time, space, and money to invest in a vegetable garden are already more likely to be more health-conscious, I cannot see these articles really changing many people’s food philosophies.

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Food Security

Food Security

A new study done by the University of Connecticut compares each of the state’s towns on their “food security.” According to the article, food security means “whether there is easy access to a variety of healthy foods and whether residents are sufficiently taking part in food assistance programs.” As a native of Connecticut, I was interested to see where my town, Norwalk, fit on the map.

As it turns out, Norwalk is pink. Interestingly, it is a “pink” town–aka greatest risk of food security–surrounded by only “green” towns–aka lowest risk of food security (you can see it on the southwestern tip that jets out from the rest of the state). When people think of access to health food, the conversation always seems to generate around the idea of “low-income areas” not having enough access. Yet this graph shows how access is not determined by geographical location; Norwalk is surrounded by all towns in the lowest risk level, and it certainly would not take more than 20 minutes to drive or take public transit to one of these locations.

In my experience, “access” to healthy foods has a lot to do with class; local and organic food is valued much more heavily by the white, upper-middle class neighborhoods of the surrounding towns. It is in these towns that farmers’ markets travel to, and these people to whom they advertise. Norwalk, by contrast, is made up of many immigrant and first-generation American families who differ immensely in both culture and income. There are more ethnic markets and affordable corporate grocery stores in Norwalk than in the “green” towns.

It is seen as sophisticated and classier to be more interested in consuming healthy foods, and this association affects both sides. Identifying one type of food philosophy with yuppies certainly would make it less attractive to anyone who might not fit into that social group.

The article quotes Connecticut Food Policy Chairman John Frassinelli as saying “the Food Policy Council will be meeting with local food councils over the next year to help them make decisions about improving access to healthy foods.” Yet this risk of food security cannot be reduced to simply a lack of supermarkets or farmers’ markets. Rather, it must also address differences in food philosophies: citizens must learn to appreciate healthier and organic foods if they are going to buy them. In order to do that, education is important.

It is also necessary to debunk the idea that the healthy foods movement only applies to wealthy whites. Geographical proximity to healthy foods can only go so far in increasing access. The rest is up to the people.