Food deserts – like it or not, Rockford has them

Chuck Sweeny’s recent post about food deserts missed the mark in both tone and in adequately defining what a food desert really is.  In lamenting his lack of easy access to a Costco, Chuck reduced an issue that deserves critical attention to a liberal buzzword.  The implication and implicit eye-roll are a reminder that people with power struggle with basic empathy, and locally, a sincere lack of understanding for a gigantic swath of Rockford residents.

What is a food desert and do food deserts actually exist?  There’s a lot of debate over the use of the term, which the USDA defines as an area existing in prominently low income census tracts where access to a supermarket is limited (low income census tracts are defined as having poverty rates that exceed 20% in a given tract – no – Stillman Valley with it’s 8.8% poverty rate among its 1,100 residents does not qualify).  The USDA has an interactive map that narrows by varying  miles required for travel and accessibility to transportation.

It’s that transportation issue that really defines a food desert.  I can drive to whatever store I choose.  I may be inconvenienced by the closing of supermarkets in my neighborhood, but I have a car.  So, I bet, does Chuck Sweeny.

The CDC certainly seems to think food deserts exist and pose a potential threat to those living within them.  They compiled a hefty database on the topic with research dating back over a decade, and include studies that link access to healthy foods with the propensity to eat those foods.  To be clear, we’re not talking about organic or specialty foods, we’re talking ANY fruits or vegetables, or low-fat milk, or whole grains.

Food deserts have been studied globally since the Clinton administration.  I know – I wrote and received grants in the mid nineties to bring fresh food to residents of low income areas.  My husband and I worked in food deserts, installing raised bed vegetable gardens for low income households. I’ve seen first hand that the best bet for someone living in a food desert is often a corner convenience store willing to keep a few items in its refrigerator case.

As far as the connection to our FLOTUS, I believe Mrs. Obama was still hanging out in Chicago back when the Brits first started talking about food deserts;  her “Let’s Move” campaign did not inspire the notion.  Instead, the campaign rightly identified the connection between obesity due to poor nutrition, and the lack of available fresh, healthy food.

Here’s a thought – rather than speculate about definition, or the degree to which food deserts may be a concern for public health, maybe it’s easier for our local pontificators to consider the economic impact on our region.  Simply, a workforce that does not have access to healthy food is not healthy and is not vital.  There is a strong correlation between the quality of health in low income communities and the number of sick days they might take from work as a result of poor health.  Would you set up shop in Rockford if you can easily deduce the likelihood of workforce sick days?

Access to supermarkets is not the only answer to this complex problem, but it’s by far the most direct.  It’s terrific that Rockford’s west-side will get a new grocery store.  Thank you Save-A-Lot, for setting up shop where others have pulled out.  Thanks for seeing the opportunity that is Rockford.  As a final note – I’m with Chuck – I’ll take that Costco, ANYWHERE in town.