Driving across the commuter bridge that connects Marin County to the city of Richmond is not just a trip across the bay. It’s also a trip across a social divide.
On one side of the bridge, Marin’s rolling green hills and roadside bird sanctuaries are laced with trails and encourage biking, walking and running.
“You can get out to remote places really quickly out here on the road,” said Megan Acevedo, a mother of two in Marin. The bike trails that skirt the Bay by her home in Corte Madera have recently been renovated, and she often runs on trails that cut through scenic marshlands, Acevedo said.
Fresh produce abounds in Marin. Shoppers at Paradise Market, an upscale grocery store in Corte Madera, select from a bounty of healthy produce choices hand-picked by Manolo Aki, the store’s produce manager. He tastes the produce himself on midnight trips to a San Francisco wholesaler to make sure his customers have the sweet fruit they favor.
Drive over the Richmond Bridge, and you’ll find a very different environment. In poorer neighborhoods in Richmond, people are often afraid to walk outside or take their children to the park.
“If the environment isn’t safe, they don’t feel safe taking their kids to the park to participate in exercise activities,” said Rochelle Monk, a community affairs coordinator for the city of Richmond. “They don’t feel comfortable walking down the street, walking their dogs, even to participate in exercise activities.”
Low-income neighborhoods in the city also don’t have easy access to the good food abundant in neighboring Marin, which was recently ranked the healthiest county in California by the annual County Health Rankings. The lack of access to healthy food could be because fresh produce is harder to find in low-income neighborhoods in Richmond.
“For every six outlets of unhealthy food in Richmond, there is one healthy outlet,” said Tracey Rattray, the director of the Community Wellness and Prevention Program for Contra Costa Health Service. Convenience stores and fast food restaurants are considered unhealthy outlets, while grocery stores and farmers markets are healthy. Richmond’s ratio is a sharp contrast to Marin, where healthy outlets outnumber the unhealthy nearly two to one.
Richmond residents like Tracy Reed wish there was more fresh food available in walking distance. Reed describes herself as a very healthy eater, and said that she always keeps fresh fruits and vegetables in her house, and even has a garden in her backyard. But there’s only one grocery store near her home.
“Just to go in and get a simple two to three things, you may stand in line for like thirty minutes,” Reed said.
And while Reed’s habits are healthy, the mother of six often has a hard time convincing her children to eat what she does: grilled or baked meat and lots of veggies. Despite her best efforts, two of her children are obese.
Richmond’s overall health is poorer compared to neighboring areas. Contra Costa County, where Richmond is the biggest city, suffers from significant health inequities, including a higher mortality rate for African Americans suffering from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease and the highest mortality rates for young people aged 15-24 in the Bay Area. Richmond fares even worse than the county overall on several counts, including the highest proportion of deaths from diabetes.
“Obesity and diabetes is a huge issue in Richmond and it’s increasing,” said LaShonda Wilson, a management analyst for the city of Richmond.
In response to these problems, the city of Richmond and local organizations have launched campaigns to increase access to healthy foods and encourage better eating habits. The city is incorporating a health and wellness element as it revamps its 10-year city plan, including policies that encourage developing a variety of food shopping choices in Richmond, urban agriculture and healthier food served in restaurants.
And local organizations are working to grow healthy food in the city, and distribute the food to residents through a community supported agriculture program. Urban Tilth started and manages several community gardens in Richmond, including one at Richmond High School.
Adam Boisvert, a program manager at Urban Tilth, and Jesse Alberto, the farm manager at Richmond High, are justifiably proud of the gardens behind the high school. On a recent visit to the garden, they pointed out some of their favorite crops. Raised beds held strawberry vines and pineapple sage, and purple collard greens grew in partial shade in a corner of the garden.
At the edge of the school grounds, students and community volunteers assembled raised beds that grow more standard fare. That’s why boxes of produce from the gardens are so popular that they have to be handed out by a lottery.
“Crops like onions, cilantro, tomatoes, potatoes, those are crops that everyone around here is familiar with and loves to eat. So we don’t really try to grow arugula,” Alberto said.
Local organizations like West County HEAL are also trying to put better food choices in front of Richmond residents. HEAL is a public/private collaboration funded by Kaiser Permanente that partners with local twenty-five business and organizations to bring better health to Richmond and San Pablo.
HEAL is focusing on two districts in Richmond, the 23rd Street corridor and North Richmond. Their goals include bringing better food into local workplaces, encouraging mothers to breastfeed and improving the quality of school lunches. HEAL also worked with stores along 23rd Street to accept payments from WIC, the federal government’s food assistance program for women, infants and children.
Discolandia is one of the small mom and pop stores along the Richmond thoroughfare that now brings better emphasis to healthy food choices. The store always had a good selection of traditional and healthy Latino food, according to Jorge Lerma, the liaison between HEAL and local stores. But they now stack healthy foods, like boxes of fresh mango and summer squash, in front of the checkout counter. Their produce aisle has better, brighter lighting, and their dairy cases hold baby formula, yogurt and milk alongside their queso fresco to comply with WIC regulations.
These changes help provide what local Latinos need to resume the healthy diet that’s historically defined their culinary traditions, Lerma said.
But experts caution that better access to good food won’t be enough to bring Richmond residents the good health enjoyed in Marin. Studies about the connection between access to healthy food and better health show mixed results, according to Helen Lee, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California. Recent studies also show that there isn’t necessarily a link between obesity and fast food and convenience stores.
“Studies do show that low-income folks do tend to shop at grocery stores,” Lee said. “So they do have access and they do go…they are not always eating at 7-11 and fast foods.”
You can even find a healthy meal at fast food restaurants if you are inclined to, Lee said. But probably it wouldn’t taste as good typical fast food fare, which points to another challenge in promoting better heating habits: Why people eat what they eat is a complicated question. Even for well-educated consumers, nutritional value isn’t the only basis for our food choices.
“They are, in a way, comforting, salty and rich and fatty foods,” Lee said. “People of all classes like, for example, potato chips.”
For low-income families, buying food that tastes good to children and won’t go to waste is a priority.
“It might be true that bananas are really pretty cheap. Cabbage is cheap and it stays a long time. We can point to produce that actually isn’t that expensive. And that can feed a low-income family,” Lee said. “You know, if your kids don’t eat it, then it’s a waste of money.”
HEAL’s approach acknowledges that good health is about more than better food choices. Their scope is wider, enabled by their collaborations with city agencies, and includes an advisory role in developing the health and wellness component of the city plan. Part of HEAL’s emphasis is on developing better parks and encouraging people to exercise during the workweek. The city’s health and wellness plan has a component for safety that relies on the work currently underway at the Office on Neighborhood Safety.
“We’re looking to change the built environment,” said Coire Reilly, HEAL’s director. “If the environment is healthier then the people themselves will become healthier. That’s kind of our philosophy, our theory of change.”
Such a holistic approach may be what’s needed to eliminate the kind of gaping health disparities that exist between places like Marin and Richmond. Lee favors the Harlem Children’s zone model for improving health in historically impoverished areas.
“He addressed everything,” Lee said of Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada. “Education. Health care. Crime. Safe streets. All things we know affect daily life, from the time you wake up till the time you go to bed.”
It’s unlikely to we’ll see such sweeping policy changes in this budget cycle, Lee said, but a unified policy approach that looks at all aspects of a healthy life if is ultimately what’s needed to improve the health of low-income neighborhoods.
Next: The connection between health and wealth.