Most people associate ‘malnutrition’ with simply not having enough money to buy nutritious food. The image that comes to mind is of an impoverished family only being able to afford a loaf or two of bread or a sack of potatoes. However, what if the issue wasn’t a lack of funds so much as a lack of availability? What if the only fresh fruits and vegetables were at least an hour’s drive away?
Welcome to the horror of food deserts: generally low-income areas – urban or rural – that lack sources of fresh, healthy food. Rather than being peppered with grocery stores and markets to sell nutritious foods, these areas tend to be filled with fast food joints and convenience stores that only stock packaged and processed goods. Families are forced to derive their nutrients from boxed mashed potatoes, the scant lettuce and tomato slice on a burger, and fruits canned in corn syrup. Unsurprisingly, people stuck in food deserts are likely to develop obesity and/or diabetes due to their diets’ lack of nutrients and high sugar, salt, and fat content.
I’m surprised that I’d never come across this term until last winter, when I was reading Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table. Sure, I’d passed through plenty of bleak towns where the only restaurants were McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts and there were no grocery stores in sight; but I had never actually considered what it must be like to live in those places. I’ve always been fortunate to have access to at least one grocery store with fresh products, not to mention higher-quality restaurants and organic markets. When promoting all of the benefits of eating both healthily and sustainably, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that nutrition is, in some unfortunate places, a commodity. Not everyone has the garden, time, or knowledge to, for instance, grow their own vegetables, which would otherwise be my first recommendation to someone without a fresh produce source. Even cooking from scratch with unpackaged ingredients has become a luxury. There are glimmers of hope, at least, in the growth of the sustainable food movement and the continuous spread of nutrition science, both of which have called attention to the food desert problem. Food is Power’s page about food deserts describes how some American communities have demanded change, such as by launching fresh food co-ops or setting a limit on the number of fast food restaurants. There have also been reports from various regions of the UK analyzing the problem and suggesting solutions.
This Thanksgiving, remember to be grateful if you can buy an organic turkey, roast fresh butternut squash, or even mash your own potatoes. Recognize how precious good food is.
In Lodz, Poland a local Food Bank named after Marek Edelman has started to organize a series of educational workshops, talks and meetings to place more importance on the first 1000 days of our lives. It is part of a bigger campaign initiated by the foundation NUTRICIA called “1000 First Days for Health”.
“Together with our 200 partner NGOs we will be also distributing flyers and posters all over our city and region. We have also set up an information point in the local Food Bank, where you will be able to get advice on principles of the correct nutrition process of little children and pregnant women. A dietician will be available for private consultation and all interested will be able to use internet for more information” – said Pawel Drobnik, the project coordinator of the Lodz Food Bank.
A couple of months ago I shared a link to an article from the Huffington Post written by a 17-year old Brett Hahn. He started by asking a question what is the most important thing that your parents have done for you? The answer to this question lies within the first 1,000 days of our existence; from the time that each of us was just a fetus in the womb to the age of 2, our parents properly fed us.
Reading about the project that is now being launched in Lodz I started to search for other projects of its kind and a lot of NGO’s are focusing on the issue of the first 1000 days of life. The Save the Children organization has carried out a study on Nutrition in the First 1,000 Days. “Out of 73 developing countries – which together account for 95 percent of child deaths – only four score “very good” on measures of young child nutrition. Our Infant and Toddler Feeding Scorecard identifies Malawi, Madagascar, Peru and Solomon Islands as the top four countries where the majority of children under age of 2 are being fed according to recommended standards.”
One of the main reasons for malnutrition among the developing countries is the lack of awareness on this important issue. Many women don’t even realize how fundamental breastfeeding is. Breastfeeding is the single most effective nutrition intervention for saving lives. If practiced optimally, it could prevent 1 million child deaths each year. In developing countries those children that are fed by their mothers are at least 6 times more likely to survive.
In addition to that, during the first 1000 days of our life we develop and build one of our most important muscles – the brain. Proper nutrition helps us build all of our vital organs in the right manner so as to be used for the rest of our lives. Apparently people that were properly fed during their first days are able to earn 20% higher wages. Unfortunately, the global cost of malnutrition related programs oscillates between $20 to $30 billion. Maybe spending more money on this kind of support will help us spend less money on other issues such as military services or curing diseases caused by malnutrition.