Beyond the White House Lawn
July 27th, 2011

Yesterday I heard from a commenter asking if there were any news on our missing babysitter.  This prompted me to realize that others of you may also be interested in an update.  We were relieved to find out a couple of weeks ago that she is fine.  She was in a bad car wreck that put her in a neck and back brace preventing her from using her computer to return e-mails for several weeks.  She has since gone through a rigorous physical therapy program and was recently cleared by her doctor to resume normal activity.  Thanks again to each of you for your concern and advice.

Fabulous arms and stunning collection of belts aside, there is much about Michelle Obama’s life that I do not envy.  Specifically I do not envy her obligation to walk the very narrow path of what is determined to be an appropriate level of involvement for a First Lady to take in public causes.  For the most part she has walked this path adeptly.  However, there have been times when even I – in spite of my sympathy for her highly visible but poorly defined role – have found myself judging.  Her pet cause of nutrition has been a big shortcoming in my mind.

This is not to say that I don’t agree with her stance.  Quite conversely I think that nutritional deficiencies (and the multi-billion-dollar-a-year health problems they cause) are grossly overlooked in our culture.  Yes, we idolize slender celebrities and bemoan the percentage of our population that is overweight and obese.  But have we really done much of anything to solve the problem?  This is where my beef with Mrs. Obama comes in.  I have always believed that her organic garden on the White House lawn was a wonderful symbol, but it is only a symbol.  How many people can it feed?  Not many.  It was never enough.

The First Lady got out of my dog house recently, though.  Last week she moved beyond the White House lawn as she was joined by a collection of representatives from major food retailers to announce their commitment to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in designated food deserts.  In February of last year she initiated the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and now that project is producing some real results.  Walgreens, Wal-Mart, and other major players in the retail food sector have pledged to begin offering fresh produce and other groceries not typically stocked at the locations in question.  This is a huge step forward.  It means that millions of people will now have access to fresh ingredients where before they may only have had access to fast food.  This is the beginning of making a real difference.

Why just the beginning?  Because it’s only half of the equation.

The documentary film Food, Inc., briefly profiles a poor Latino family of four.  The father has Type 2 Diabetes.  He, his wife, and their younger daughter are all overweight.  His diabetes medications absorb a sizeable chunk of their monthly budget, and so they find themselves unable to purchase the foods they would like to buy at the grocery store.  The cameras follow them through the produce section as they look longingly at heads of broccoli, apples, and other fruits and vegetables that are out of their price range.  They face similar frustrations in the dairy section, where the mother comments that a two-liter bottle of soda is on sale for less than half the price of a gallon of milk.  They believe that their dollar won’t go stretch far enough in the supermarket, and so they get in the car and drive to Burger King where ten dollars can fill all four of their bellies for the rest of the day.  It broke my heart.

This is why a lack of fresh food in urban areas is only part of the problem.  There is an education problem at play that must be addressed simultaneously.  Many (most?) of the people afflicted by food deserts have no idea how to shop for or prepare raw ingredients.  And it’s not their fault – they’ve never had the opportunity to learn.  As I watched that scene in Food, Inc. I thought “Where are the dried beans?  Where are the canned tomatoes?  Where are the eggs?  Where is the frozen spinach?  Where is the rice?  Where are the ham hocks and chicken wings?”  These are inexpensive items that can stretch a tight budget for miles.  Cooking from raw ingredients (which doesn’t always mean fresh produce) on a budget is not hard, but neither is it intuitive.  It is something that must be taught.  Without some educational programming at the ready, these newly stocked grocery stores won’t make a difference.

Fresh broccoli, apples, and blueberries are wonderful additions to a person’s diet.  But they are pricey indulgences for people with limited income.  And without some serious training that’s all they will ever be – occasional treats.  If we’re going to make a difference in the health of low-income families, we need to help them change the way they eat all the time, not just now and then.

I applaud Mrs. Obama for all the work that she is doing in this arena.  I just hope that she realizes we’re not to the finish line yet.

Many thanks to Big Little Wolf whose Sunday post on the topic of buying healthy food on a budget, coupled with the news about the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, inspired this post.

7 Responses to “Beyond the White House Lawn”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I’m so glad you’ve taken this the necessary steps further, in terms of discussion. I think we need to keep the politics of food front and center – its costs – human and otherwise – and the necessity for a civilized nation to properly educate and nourish its citizens.

    Here’s to the First Lady moving forward with this initiative, and to see some of that change that many of us hoped for.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Thanks, Gale, for the update on your babysitter. I have thought about your post a few times since, but had been neglectful in following up with you.

    The topic of today’s post is a real passion of mine – and I don’t mean Michelle Obama’s arms, which, indeed, are worth feeling passionate about. I remember the scene from Food Inc. that you describe and I think it is perfectly emblematic of the problem of healthy food choices in our country. My family is lucky to be able to afford a variety of produce, but it irks me to no end that a bunch of grapes costs significantly more than a bag of chips.

  3. Jeanna Says:

    This is a great topic! I agree that education is crucial otherwise people will do what they’ve always done (or eaten in this case). I would like to point out that education is needed for everyone, not just those that people that live in a food desert or are on a tight budget. My family and in-laws consider processed foods to be just as healthy as fresh. They believe they have a well balanced meal with chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes out of a box, and canned green beans.

  4. Gale Says:

    Jeanna – You make such a great point. I was very lucky to grow up in a home where my mother cooked and baked from scratch daily, and so I learned how to do it. With the exception of an occasional box of Kraft Mac and Cheese (it’s a guilty pleasure) I don’t buy processed foods and I’m so thankful that cooking from scratch, while more work than cooking from a box, doesn’t feel overwhelming to me. However, my comfort in the kitchen is the product of learning to cook as a child, and honing my skills daily over the past 11 years. So many people in this country have no idea how to cook and it’s really a shame. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, but there are some basic skills that do have to be learned.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    Definitely a great topic and something on my mind lately since I read Omnivore’s Dilemma in May. I read OD prior to coming back to the US for home leave and when I got to my in-laws house, I really looked at all the processed foods differently. What used to be a sight for sore been-away-from-America-too-long eyes, I saw in a whole different light, as a factory product. And it even all tasted differently.

    As I have mentioned before here in the comments is that I used to work for the American beef industry, and I still stand by my comment that they are just farmers trying to make and spend money as efficiently as possible. And I was also well aware of the influence of corn on the industry. But what struck me in the book is just how tightly wound the corn/food/fossil fuel industries are and the elaborate infrastructure they have created to ensure their place on our dinner tables. Ugh.

    Now living in Phnom Penh, there are way more products on the shelves that I am familiar with, like Ruffles potato chips, Pepperidge Farm products and Palmolive soap than there were in Arusha, Tanzania. But as oddly comforting as it is to see those things, I’ll probably rarely buy them (except when my Mint Milano urge kicks in), not when the fresh and local foods are so much more delicious.

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Such an important topic, and post. I agree that so much of this is about consistency and ultimately about education. I think that these strides are critical, but that we have a ways to go. I am also curious about all of the people out there who can afford to eat nutritiously and opt not to. I wonder sometimes whether there is an issue of values here, of what we choose to care and think about.

    Thanks for updating us on your babysitter. So relieved to hear she is okay.

  7. Ana Says:

    Gail, I couldn’t agree with you more. Jaimie Oliver focused on this during his TED speech, as well—that education about food is a crucial part of any meaningful change. If people do not know how to prepare real foods, and how to shop for value (ie dry beans) having veggies in the corner store withering away will not make any difference. Nor will taxes on junk food. In fact, those that are well off can easily absorb the costs, and those that are struggling will likely make concessions elsewhere. If healthy cooking is not part of your culture–passed on from parents to children and then reinforced by swapping tips and recipes with your friends and neighbors, then it would seem completely foreign and insurmountable to attempt. Especially if you are dealing with other health/mental health issues. I’m not sure what the best strategy is, but likely it’s going to have to be a longterm approach focusing on ways to break the cycle for the next generation. I’m all for incorporating aspects of nutrition & life skills (shopping, cooking) into public education….but I’m sure that’s not on the standardized tests :(