Friday, July 22, 2011

Walking the food miles.

Michelle Obama is joining efforts with large chain grocers to bring health food to food deserts. Walmart and Supervalu pledged adding 525 to 550 stores combined nation wide; Walgreen expects to add more food to its stores since it's already positioned in may food deserts and low income neighborhoods. Food is close to my heart; as a Chinese native, food is as close to religion as I care to worship on a daily basis. When I saw the news, despite the names like Walmart, I am hopeful this is a positive step America is taking towards a sustainable food culture.

Food deserts are places identified as lacking access to grocery stores and fresh produce. I remember in my college days, living in downtown Cincinnati with no access to a grocer within walking distance. It seemed the home of the Reds takes on a ghostly shade after the bankers and lawyers leave for the day; only the homeless wonders the streets. After 5 PM, there is nothing in the area for me to walk to and buy produce, less bars and restaurants. I was a college kid back then, bars were sufficient. I do recall a street farmer’s market around the corner from my apartment on Thursday mornings, only selling fresh veggies. I would stock up enough for a few days, and plan for a few bar food nights. I maintained a well-balanced diet of healthy and unhealthy food. I was young, I didn’t care about things like blood pressure and cholesterol level. I’m not sure if I had lived in a food desert, it was the late 90s and the term hadn't hit the States yet.

I do remember when we first moved to the States, we had no cars and knew no one who could drive us anywhere. My parents had to live near a food oasis. Our first few apartments were always close to a local grocery store; we walked to buy groceries and was intrigued that the store would let us take the shopping cart back to our apartments a few blocks away. But my parents eventually decided their American Dream is to live in the suburbs; somehow driving a van to super stores became a symbol of their prosperity. I fought the notion because I loved walking to places. As soon as I turned 18, I moved out into an apartment in the same neighborhood where we had lived the first few years of our coming to America.

These days, I consider any place where I can’s access local grocery on foot a food desert. Even if I lived close to a place where I may be able to walk to, I choose not to. Selfishly it’s because I just don’t like walking on the streets of most American cities.

Most American cities are too spread-out and walking to anywhere is a miserable experience. There are no trees planted between road lanes to provide cover for both bikers and pedestrians. On the days like this, 104 degrees with heavy humidity, shades are necessary. There are also fewer street venders in America’s streets ready to sell tea, coffee, or Mung Bean ice-cream for a mid-walk break. Trekking anywhere means you have to prepare for hydration and other amenities.

Walking the American streets is a lonely journey, across treacherous traffics well regulated. The Beijing streets I remember are pleasant to walk; always well shaded, usually connected by many hutongs and friendly street-stands. The Beijing streets these days resemble New York City, taken over by heavy traffic and high-rises. But the street venders are still around, the trees have grown, and although cars have taken over some of the bicyclist’s turf, the pedestrian paths remain untouched. Beijingers still love to walk and ride the subway. The buses in Beijing are still crowded but still a mystery to me.

Nostalgia aside, about Walmart, Supervalu, and Walgreen joining forces with Mrs. Obama to bring healthy food to food deserts: According to Supervalu, there are more than 23 million people, including more than 6 million children, live in U.S. food deserts. These food deserts spreads to urban and rural areas alike. I’m glad the chain stores are making an effort to lower the prices on fruit and vegetables and bringing them to low income areas. On the other hand, they are motivated by the fact that they are now able to open new store in places where they are banned, like NYC.

“Supervalu already operates about 400 stores in areas some may consider food deserts, including five recently opened units on the Chicago's South Side, Chief Executive Craig Herkert told Reuters.”

My only wish for the day is to tell Mrs. Obama and these too big to care chain stores, and any store trying to solve the food desert problem, to build more walking and bicycling friendly infrastructure and concentrate basic services to walking distance of our communities. I miss walking to places and buying what I need for the day, cooking fresh food and eating in better ways. I miss being able to walk to a gym or a community center to pass those long summer days. Mrs. Obama's efforts are worth applauding, but it's only part of a good thing. To really build a sustainable society, and satisfying my selfish nostalgia for wanting others to love walking the American streets, I hope the administration will grow health neighborhoods completely, sustainably, sensibly - maximizing the effects of a totality of the circumstances strategy. Perhaps in addition to address the food desert problem, Walmart and the likes can help bring other basic services, churches, banks, libraries, together under the covers of trees and umbrella-covers of friendly street-food stands.

Here is to high hopes.

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