Opinion

Grocery Retailers Should Invest in Mobile Markets to Close Health Gap

Photo courtesy of Growing Power

Choose healthy foods. Live an active lifestyle. Eat green, leafy vegetables, and be sure to meet the recommended daily value of fruit and grain servings.

These actions are easier said than done when people rarely, if ever, feel that they have the expendable income to purchase premium products labeled organic, non-GMO, all natural and gluten-free.

In a first-world country, we have the privilege to be inundated with messages from sustainable food advertisers, medical practitioners, health advocates and physical fitness trainers, who all advocate for shopping organic and consuming sustainably.

But for residents of Chicago’s West Side and the South Austin neighborhood, which have annual median incomes of $10,000 and $18,000, respectively, making weekly trips to stores such as Whole Foods or Plum Market seems almost impossible. These stores heavily populate wealthier neighborhoods — including the Gold Coast and River North — that have incomes almost reaching six figures.

In more impoverished Chicago neighborhoods that already experience higher rates of crime and violence, penny-pinching is another burden, among growing scarcity of public school funding, job layoffs, police brutality and fear of unpredictable health insurance costs.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have sufficiently healthy diets rarely worry about where we will find our next nutritious meal.

Think about the last time you had to decide between grabbing a bag of potato chips or opting for a side salad.

That fortunate moment of peril for your tastebuds isn’t presented to everyone. For some, it’s not a question of what will be more heart-healthy, but rather, what will be most satisfying and cost-effective.

Although it may appear that living a healthier lifestyle is becoming a widespread movement, foods dense in saturated and trans fats continue to be far less inexpensive.

If you’re like me, you might wonder why, with all of the medical and scientific data available, the price-per-pound of a bag of apples costs almost two times as much as a box of Ho-Hos.

The truth is that the government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) capitalize — directly and indirectly — on subsidizing unhealthy foods because they realize lower priced foods such as Ho-Hos and Doritos return higher selling rates in more impoverished neighborhoods than a bag of apples or a head of broccoli.

The production of these commodity crops — soybeans, corn, wheat, dairy and livestock — has steadily increased over the past decade. This has been linked to reported medical increases in food allergies, blood pressure, heart disease and gluten intolerance, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Since 1995, the federal government has spent $19.2 billion to subsidize corn sweeteners, corn starch and soy oils — the agricultural building blocks of junk food — according to an annual report “Apples to Twinkies 2013: Comparing Federal Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food” published by CALPIRG, an independent, state-based and citizen-funded public advocacy organization.

In the report, CALPIRG calculated that the government has spent enough for each American taxpayer to buy 355 Twinkies over a 13-year time span. That equals nearly 20 Twinkies per year.

Apple subsidies during the same time period would cover the cost of only nine apples per person, which is about half an apple a year.

The government, mass-production and corporate food suppliers are looking to stock grocery and convenience stores with foods that have extended shelf lives to maximize profit and minimize waste. Apples and other produce require faster transportation from farm to store and refrigerators to keep the produce fresh.

Now, more than ever, we are faced with an expanding health gap, one that requires just as much attention as the U.S. income gap for which so many politicians incessantly promise solutions.

Within this health gap lies a social gradient similar to trickle-down economics: Those at the top — the wealthiest and best off in terms of health and access to health care — are living exceedingly better lives than those at the bottom.
You might be thinking, “I already knew that.”

But here is the catch: When those at the top climb even higher on the health ladder, those on the bottom rungs fall even farther behind. This translates to increased visits to doctors and hospitals for those already struggling, resulting in the need to take time off work and therefore earning less money.

With less income, the budget tightens as people try to provide for themselves and their families. They purchase even more unhealthy, subsidized foods while providing the government with the sales results it predicted.

See how the cycle repeats itself? Access to affordable health care, affordable healthy food and affordable education on health and healthy food is more than just an economic problem. It is entangled in an intricate web of other social, racial, cultural, biological and geographical issues.

Instead of simply pointing out that not all Americans have equal access to healthy food and lifestyle options, I’m going to suggest a business model that should be followed and implemented by others across the city, country and world.

This business model is that of the nonprofit organization Growing Power.

Providing healthy food to underserved neighborhoods in Chicago, Growing Power has a bus that sells locally grown produce at prices below the market average, while offering a discount for food stamp recipients.

The business began as a weekly delivery service on the city’s South and West sides last summer. As of recent, the former-CTA-bus-turned-produce-market makes 28 regular stops at schools and health centers.

Now, this isn’t just some Whole Foods operation on wheels. This is healthy, local food sold at fair prices.

While still functioning in wealthier neighborhoods such as the Gold Coast and River North, grocers such as Treasure Island and Plum Market could easily provide a service like Growing Power to Chicago’s lower income neighborhoods.

This would help relieve any issues involving food deserts in Chicago, allowing for high quality produce and non-perishables to be equally distributed to all Chicago neighborhoods.

Following business models similar to Growing Power’s creates opportunities for other markets to take part in the process, too.

Instead of tossing out produce and perishable items that have passed their “sell by” dates, Whole Foods, Plum Market and other major grocery retailers could resell those items for a discounted price from vehicles similar to Growing Power’s buses.

Businesses could also employ residents of the neighborhoods they service to improve employment rates in the area.

Nearby schools could collaborate with Growing Power and businesses adopting similar models to provide health education courses for children and adults in addition to cooking classes that would incorporate the products offered on the vehicles into
the recipes.

Not all of these suggestions can be implemented overnight; they take time, planning and funding.

Nonetheless, they shouldn’t be overlooked. With the introduction, and widespread execution, of simple solutions such as these, we can better prepare and educate all those who play a crucial role in this social gradient health gap.

After all, wouldn’t we want to prevent illnesses rather treat them?

Opinion Editor

Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Sadie is a junior at Loyola studying journalism and marketing. Apart from calling herself an amateur vegan chef, she loves to divide her seldom bits of free time among collaging, eating tacos and hanging with her black pug, Rita. Sadie is super pumped for her first year on the Phoenix staff!