Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Food Deserts, Car Deserts, and City Life

My little kitchen helper:

Several researchers have released new studies suggesting that current concepts of the urban food desert may be inaccurate.  One of the Times reporters said that technically her town of Princeton, NJ would be considered a food desert.  These new studies seem highly quantitative, and I get the sense that the researchers do not take into consideration the matrix of factors that make it hard to get decent food in a struggling city.

From the descriptions of these studies it seems like the researchers are not considering some basic facts:

1.  Shopping on foot for enough food to feed a family sucks. (Even the great food writer M. F. K. Fisher agrees with me.  In her 1931 essay "The Measure of My Powers," she talks about how hard it was to adjust to shopping in the markets in Dijon, and how heavy a few pounds of food feels when you carry it for a distance.)

2. A mile may not seem far to travel if you are a researcher, but if you are a carless Baltimorean it’s far.

Approximately 35% of Baltimore households reported not having a car in the 2000 census (compare to the approximately 13% of households in Princeton that do not have a car) and Badger and I are among them.   

Our food options are actually pretty good for this area.  We have

Local/natural Coop about ¾ mile away (but dangerous for pedestrians, so we don’t take the baby)

Regular supermarket about 1.25 miles away (low quality fruit, veg, and meat)

Farmers’ Market, about 1.5 miles away, Saturday mornings in spring and summer

We spend a few hours each weekend procuring food and I sometimes don’t buy everything we need because I can’t carry it all.  So that’s all well and good until we need a bunch of bananas and some milk midweek. We work a tight staggered work schedule that just does not leave much time for a side trip to the store that takes a minimum of an hour.  No side trips sometimes means no fresh fruit or a pizza instead of a homemade meal.  Today it meant that Ladybug had cereal and avocado for breakfast—she liked it.  So for a family of two adults and a toddler, shopping on foot is inconvenient and involved limited choices, but it’s doable.

If we had a larger family, our present system would quickly become unworkable.  And if we worked non-standard hours, our system would be harder.  If you are a woman in the suburbs with a car and another adult in the house and you need to shop at night, I assume you can just wait until your kids are in bed and drive to the store.  Our neighborhood is safe enough that I would feel okay walking to the store at night, although I would prefer not to; however, I think that many women in Baltimore would not want to be walking miles alone at night.  Safety issues also mean that you can’t always take the most direct route to the store since sticking to the most well lit and heavily traveled streets easily adds a few blocks of walking.

It’s enough to make a lady say “Screw it, chicken boxes from the corner store for all.”

Our fridge on Thursday evening.   I guess it doesn't look that bare, but I've got some Mormon/survivalist thing going on when it comes to food storage. 

My big shop for the week.  It felt like a lot more food when I was carrying it.  We also got milk, eggs, oats, nuts, bread, and tortillas at the "natural store."

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