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Munch On This

In Connecticut's cities, the food crisis continues

By Alan Bisbort

August 14, 2008

Given how much it means to us, how often we crave it, dream about and seek it out, food gets very little "play" in our political discourse. We just keep right on munching Cheetos, Dunkin' Donuts (with "sprinkles") and Big Macs while the talking heads yammer on about how "presumptuous" Barack Obama has become and how John Edwards' $400 haircuts were the sure sign that he was getting something on the side.

The food discussions we have in this country generally begin and end with Oprah Winfrey's freakish fluctuations in weight and the bulimia and anorexia of our supermodels. But there is another side to the food dialogue that, like the unequal distribution of wealth in the country, reveals what Mark Winne, former head of the Hartford Food System, has dubbed a "food gap."

This "food gap" is even more pronounced than the income gap, the lines more clearly drawn, or at least Winne makes a convincing case that this is so in his new book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. The signs of a food gap can be seen in most large cities—from Hartford to New Haven to Springfield. Here, you will find a near total lack of the large supermarkets of the sort that appear every half-mile in the suburbs, and the prices for food items are higher in the few outlets—generally smaller independent stores or bodegas—that do exist.

For example, in 1968, there were 13 chain supermarkets in Hartford. By 1979, when Winne arrived, there were six. By 1986, there were only two. Today, there are 1.6 square feet of supermarket space for each resident of Hartford, New Haven and Springfield, compared to 7 square feet for each resident in suburban towns like Wallingford and Rocky Hill. In addition, these inner cities are "food deserts" in another way; they have too few places that serve healthy, affordable food and too many outlets for unhealthy fast food. That is, too much eating at McDonald's and Taco Bell and too little eating of anything that grew out of the ground or hasn't been pumped full of preservatives and artificially dyed.

The libertarians and conservatives out there will harrumph and say, "Well, let the market decide ... if the poor want to eat French fries and Tasty Cakes, that's their lookout." However, the grim truth is that this is a national problem. The food gap has spawned a public health crisis, reflected in the rising rates of diabetes, obesity and gout (yes, gout). Sixty percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese, a fact that is more threatening to public health than flat out hunger and which Winne says has led to Americans being a "race of 250-pound weaklings."

As far back as 1974, Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet) was decrying this food crisis and the rise in obesity. That was about the same time the country was hit by an "energy" crisis, with an oil embargo creating lines at gas stations. The response to both situations by the public and private sectors has been a disgrace, one that will not escape the notice of historians 50 years hence. Instead of endeavoring to conserve gas and drive smaller cars, auto makers—aided by relaxing of emissions standards and the rules on what constitutes a "car"—created the SUV and Hummer. Likewise, instead of addressing the public health problems, the fast food market expanded.

Today, the fast food industry claims it's changing its "heart attack on a plate" mentality. What a crock. "Healthy" choices at McDonald's and "DDSMART" at Dunkin' Donuts are the equivalent of "lite" beer. How much more healthy, really, are "apple fries"? As one health expert recently told a Waterbury Republican-American reporter, "If you want to take terrible junk food and make it less terrible junk food, it doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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