This past week, I was listening to National Public Radio during a rare lunch break. I was pleasantly surprised to catch a 20-minute segment discussing child nutrition and the fact that nearly 17 million children struggle with hunger on a daily basis.
Several guests were invited to offer their perspective about hunger, nutrition and healthy eating during the NPR program. What interested me most, however, was the discussion about food deserts. This phrase was coined to describe a community or district with little or no access to the kind of foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. Often, these areas are served by plenty of fast food restaurants, but offer little or no access to fresh fruits, vegetables, or healthy grains. This concept has been gaining ground and is becoming more familiar in daily vocabulary. It has also become a real issue during my daily work as a doctor.
That same afternoon I listened to the NPR program, a woman came into my office for a follow-up visit about her diabetes. Although she is currently on medication to help control her blood sugar, part of our plan to help improve her long term health has been to begin weekly exercise, and to eat a healthier diet. As we discussed her current weight loss plans, she told me how she struggled to prepare healthy meals each day. She described making the difficult choice between buying more expensive fresh spinach compared to the frozen variety, and how she alternated weeks driving to the farmer’s market across town to buy fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The rest of the month she would save gas and money buying the cheaper microwave meals in order to meet her budget. It seems that despite her best efforts, she was constantly struggling to make the healthy choice which could improve her health.
This story is a familiar one, to health professionals, teachers and social service workers nationwide. As a doctor, a lot of my work is focused on helping my patients manage their own expectations and their activities where healthy living is concerned. As the medical community continues to develop treatments for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, I am finding that access to healthy foods is a necessary complement to the care I give my patients.
Several efforts are in progress to address this issue, but in my opinion, the most important and real change is within local communities. Eliminating food deserts can be a struggle for inner city communities, or in districts where local public transportation is sparse. However, knowing where the healthy food is sold is a good first step. If you are interested in finding local farmer’s markets, or alternative sites to buying healthy foods, check out Local Harvest, a site that enables you to locate fresh food in your community. Sites like this one also offer recipes, meal plan suggestions, and additional links to help you take advantage of local farmer’s offerings.
You can catch the NPR program mentioned above, or read the transcript yourself, at NPR’s website.
Ashby Wolfe is a resident physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She holds an MD as well as masters degrees in public policy and public health. She blogs at www.ashbywolfe.com and is a guest blogger for calhealthreport.org on issues of family medicine and community health. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of UC Davis or calhealthreport.org