Places that Do Not Exist

August 21, 2011

The Sunday LSJ this morning is chock full of food stories. I was sort of partial to the item on huitlacoche that was tucked back a bit, because I virtually lived on tamales made with it when I was down in Oxaca for real a number of years ago. But the main thing is the front page item that is part of series on diet and health. Yesterday’s LSJ had some rather weird advice on food safety that I would probably ignore (like buying pasteurized eggs). But today’s story, which explores the still uncertain relationships between food access and better diets was right on the beam for the readership of the Thornapple blog.

The LSJ talks about food deserts and has a map showing which neighborhoods in Lansing qualify. Mine doesn’t, and I’m not sure why. Unless I head due west for about four miles on neighborhood streets, I have to drive through one of the food desert neighborhoods in order to get to a grocery store. And if it’s an income thing, all I can say is while there are indeed a few college professors and lawyers who live in Westside, we are outnumbered 10 to 1 by families that struggle. Which maybe just goes to show that the situation is probably quite a bit worse than even the LSJ thinks it is.

At any rate, the main theme is hand-wringing about the fact that there is very flimsy evidence for thinking living close to a grocery store actually leads people to make better food choices, in the first place.

Well, duh!

I remember the year I lived in an apartment complex on the eastern Colorado prairie with five other single guys in their early twenties. We were fifteen miles from anything except a) an IBM plant that was surrounded by high fences patrolled by humorless androids (not that we wanted to get in there, anyway); b) prairie dogs; and c) a 24-hour King Soopers grocery store. Need I say that the proximity to this establishment only encouraged us to wait until we got really hungry at around 2 am (people my age will remember what made you really hungry at 2 am),  then stroll over to King Soopers for frozen pizza, potato chips or some other equally unhealthy munchies. I assure you that we did not head over there for Belgian endive or bok choy.

No, the food deserts thing is but one small part of the picture. It’s probably more important for children than it is for already obese adults, in any case. I think it was last week I made a reference to David Kessler’s work on conditioned overeaters. Hit the button for “Places that Do Not Suck” and you can find the link. Kessler’s point is that it’s most important to eat healthy between the ages of 4 and 10, because important brain chemistry is being formed at that time. Of course if children between 4 and 10 live with adults who are eating frozen pizza and potato chips all the time, it’s hard to see how we’re going to work out of this mess as a society. But that’s too big a topic for one blog to take on.

It’s the lack of grocery stores that leads to food deserts, and the LSJ story mentions the still unfilled voids created by the collapse of the L&L chain collapse about a year ago. There were two L&L stores, each about a mile from my house in opposite directions, but both were closed during that time. Now I have to go about 1.5 miles farther in one direction, and 2 miles in the other whenever I want cottage cheese to go with my fresh heirloom tomatoes. I’m not asking for sympathy. I can still get frozen pizza more readily. Heck, I can get hot pizza more readily. But I’m beyond munchies at my age. I promise.

Last week in the UP Diane and I bounced around looking for the Sunny Shores café in Manistique and the Blaney Inn in Blaney Park.  Both were highly recommend in the 2003 edition of the Moon guide we had with us, but both were shuttered and up for sale. Later we drove up and down M-28  in Seney looking for a place called the Golden Grill that was even more highly recommend in the 2001 Fodor’s. It was supposed to be easy to find because it was next to the IGA. It wasn’t. We finally decided we had found the place where it had been, but not only was no restaurant there in 2011, neither was there a grocery store of any kind.

It’s tough to eat good food from places that do not exist.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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