Last Wednesday — the day before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a controversial ban on the retail sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in the Big Apple — a coalition of community activists, health care policy advocates and concerned citizens participated in a national conference call sponsored by the group Local to Global Advocates for Justice to discuss the nutrition crisis that continues to plague communities of color.
The call — which attracted participants from cities stretching from Oakland, Calif., to Washington D.C. — offered a platform for representatives of the so-called Food Sovereignty Movement to share stories and brainstorm new strategies for retaking control of the dietary choices in their communities.
Jackie Byers — director of the Oakland-based Black Organizing Project — hosted the call. Byers — who has worked for more than 16 years advocating for a variety of social justice issues and was formerly the associate director of the Center for Third World Organizing — says it’s time for people of color to assert their moral authority over the corporations that are destroying their communities by flooding them with foods that are high in fat, high in sugar and lacking nutritional value.
“Across the country our children, Black children, are under a profound nutritional deficit,” she said. “The food system that’s feeding them, that’s feeding us, is not a wholesome, vibrant, healthy food system that promotes our health and well being; it’s promoting caloric overload, it’s promoting not only obesity, but chronic conditions that are reducing our quality of life and our longevity.”
Since the term was first coined in the 1990s — originally to address the struggles faced by peasant farmers in the developing world — Food Sovereignty has grown to encompass a whole range of strategies for promoting agriculture and nutritional health in low-income, and in the U.S., predominantly African-American communities. The movement represents a unified grassroots response to America’s unprecedented obesity epidemic, which leads to hundreds of thousands of life-threatening diagnoses each year, and recently overtook smoking as the nation’s leading preventable cause of death.
More Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history; and no population has been hit harder than African Americans. Black Americans are now 1.4 times more likely than whites to be obese. According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, a whopping four out of five African-American women are obese or overweight, and while Black men fare slightly better, they still outrank all other ethnic groups in rates of obesity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that weight-related diseases are plaguing Black communities at alarming rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to non-Hispanic white adults, the risk of diagnosed diabetes is 77 percent higher among non-Hispanic Blacks, and African Americans are more than two times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from the disease. African Americans also suffer from a higher incidence of certain diet-related cancers and hypertension than whites, and are less likely to have their high blood pressure under control.
In an effort to address the crisis, in February 2010, Michelle Obama — who has made obesity a cornerstone of her tenure as first lady — joined Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Philadelphia to introduce the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400 million commitment to provide dietary support to Americans living in so-called “food deserts” where access to healthy and affordable food is severely lacking.
The initiative provides support for a range of programs by offering technical assistance to community development organizations; federal tax credits to groups that promote healthy eating; and loans, loan guarantees and grants to spark investments in affected communities.
A month after the first lady’s visit, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched “Get Healthy Philly” with help from the CDC and a variety of nonprofit organizations and private institutions, including The Food Trust, a local whole foods advocacy group. The federally funded program is a multi-pronged effort to decrease smoking rates in the city and promote healthy lifestyle choices, including good eating habits.
According to Dr. Giridhar Mallya — the director of policy and planning for the Department of Public Health — a large part of the program involves broadening access to wholesome foods.
“I think oftentimes we think about people’s nutritional habits and whether they are active as individual decisions, but people’s decisions are really influenced in pretty significant ways by the environments in which they live,” said Dr. Mallya. “So right now many Philadelphians, particularly low-income Philadelphians and racial minorities, live in environments that make unhealthy food choices very easy; they’re cheap and they are heavily marketed, while healthy foods are either difficult to find or not affordable for folks with limited income.”
Brian Lang, the director of The Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign says food scarcity has gotten worse for low-income consumers over the past three decades as grocery stores have become more scarce.
“Starting about 20 or 30 years ago supermarkets began following their customers out of the cities and into the suburbs,” he said. “Meanwhile the average grocery store has gotten a lot larger and as a result they have gotten a lot more expensive to build and fewer and farther between. That makes it a challenge to get to a store if you’re somebody that has transportation problems or that doesn’t own a car.”
“Some supermarket owners have commented that in inner city locations they are just not making quite as much money as they would in more affluent suburban areas where land is easier to come by and people have more disposable income,” he added.
The fallout has been dramatic. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million, mostly low-income Americans have no supermarket or large grocery store within a mile of their homes, forcing them to rely disproportionately on convenience stores and fast food restaurants to meet much of their dietary needs. Meanwhile, research has shown that people who lack access to supermarkets are 46 percent more likely to eat unhealthy diets.
The Food Trust has long been at the forefront of tackling the problem. In 2004 — with the support of Rep. Dwight Evans and help from The Reinvestment Fund and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition — the group launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, an $85 million statewide public-private partnership that has become a model for communities nationwide committed to combating obesity and improving food access. According to the group, the program has helped sponsor 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties.
Mallya calls ensuring access to healthy foods “a big part of the puzzle” when it comes to reversing the downward spiral of nutritional access in cities like Philadelphia. Over the last two years the city has recruited more than 630 corner stores into its “Healthy Bodegas” program, which seeks to replace standard corner store fare with more produce and fresh foods.
According to Mallya, under the program the city offers a small financial incentive to owners who agree to add at least four new healthy products to their inventory, use marketing materials to direct consumers to healthy alternatives and undergo training to learn how to price and sell wholesome foods. Since 2010 the city has also helped launch ten new farmers markets in low-income communities including Norris Square in North Philadelphia and Point Breeze in South Philly. To provide a financial incentive to ensure people patronize them, the city is jointly sponsoring a program with The Food Trust called “Philly Food Bucks,” which offers consumers $2.00 in coupons for every $5.00 they spend using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/food stamp benefits at participating farmers markets.
“That program alone has helped increase SNAP redemptions at farmers markets around the city by 400 percent,” said Mallya. “I think it’s a great example that people will healthy food if you make it available and affordability. You just have to make sure people are equipped to do it.”
The city has set a five-year goal of ensuring that at least 25 percent of Philadelphians live within a half-mile of a supermarket, farmers market or healthy corner store and hopes to reduce by 10 percent children’s consumption of junk foods from corner bodegas.
Even with healthy access, however, eating right ultimately comes down to choice. And experts agree that’s a bit tougher to influence. Food choices are often as much a product of culture as they are a source of nourishment. In her 2004 study: “Factors influencing food choices, dietary intake, and nutrition related attitudes among African Americans,” Delores James — a professor of behavioral health at the University of Florida — noted that among some Black populations, where high salt, high fat foods are a cultural norm, there remains a “general perception that ‘eating healthfully’ [means] giving up part of their cultural heritage and trying to conform to the dominant culture.”
To break the cycle of bad eating the city has been partnering with schools and community centers to remove unhealthy options from school cafeterias educate children on proper nutrition with the hope they will bring those lessons back to their parents.
The good news is these efforts appear to be paying off. Last August The New York Times published a piece by food writer Mark Bittman that called Philadelphia “among the most progressive cities in the country” for promoting healthy food choices and a model for other cities to follow. It might be too soon to see the impact on the bodies of our citizens, but if these efforts keep up, the City of Brotherly Love is likely to shed a few pounds in the coming years.
For more information on the Department of Public Health’s efforts to reduce obesity in Philadelphia, visit: www.foodfitphilly.org.
To find a farmers market in your neighborhood, visit: www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/phillyfoodbucks.php.