Waste and the loss of experience

By Faith Bugman

The pandemic has been difficult, to state the obvious. A lot of people lost their jobs, and will be affected for years (if not generations) to come. I know I struggled, and paying for college has been daunting.

In order to do so (despite my distaste for fast food) I’ve begun DoorDashing, when I have the time.

Driving up and down the streets of Allentown, Boyertown, and Quakertown, I was struck by the sheer amount of options: there’s millions of pizza and Chinese places, chain restaurants, McDonalds, Wawa, and other easy-to-eat places you see on every road in America. From my house to Quakertown, which is basically a straight shot down 663, I pass three McDonalds in about thirty minutes. I pass one Walmart (at the very, very end).

I didn’t see a problem with this, after all, it made my job easier. I’m usually delivering to a townhouse or a home with a minivan in the driveway. Undoubtedly, at times, I’m dropping overpriced and unhealthy food off to homes in impoverished areas.

But then, every once and a while, I would get a Dash to go to a supermarket and pick up someone’s groceries. In this scenario — without faut — I would almost always be driving up long driveways to a building I could only describe as a mansion; or at least the homely representation of the American Dream.

I began to notice the placement of supermarkets compared to fast food places. I began digging, and immediately was struck with an almost unbelievable statistic. There are 196,839 fast food restaurants in the United States, and only around 40,000 grocery stores. Including all restaurants, there are 660,755 in the U.S. meaning that there are approximately SIXTEEN restaurants for every grocery store.

Suddenly, it makes sense how I pass a McDonalds, a Dunkin, and numerous pizza or Chinese places on the way to my friends house, but only one grocery store.

Now, while I find this very odd, I had no knowledge of this being a problem, so maybe it wasn’t one. But then, I came across a term I had never heard before: food deserts. A food desert describes a place where fresh produce is not readily available which puts those living in the food desert at greater risk for chronic diseases according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (which is a part of the United States National Library of Medicine, and a branch of the National Institutes of Health). Research from the NCBI shows a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats slows weight gain — in other words, is not as likely to cause obesity as fast food — and can lower risks for cancer or heart disease. This correlation explains the detrimental effects when restaurants are around 10x more accessible than fresh produce; and it is only a cycle that will worsen as food continues to be mass produced for the purpose of profit rather than quality. 

I went to the USDA ERS’s website, and used their mapping tool to look at low income and low access to grocery stores over 10 to 20 mile increments. In Pennsylvania, approximately 77,000 people (out of the 23.5 million affected nationwide) are unable to afford or find healthy food– a food desert. From the map, it’s clear that this problem is more common in urban areas: Allentown, Philly, but even Bucks County and dozens of others throughout Pennsylvania.

I began reaching out on social media asking if anyone had ever seen or dealt with these problems. “I know there are lots of issues in West Philly with a lack of fresh produce,” said Ally Sterner, an oncology nurse at the University of Pennsylvania, “people only have access to corner stores as a [substitution for] fresh produce.” It became apparent to me that this is not an invisible issue, we have merely ignored it.

“I go shopping with my boyfriend in Philly,” wrote Melanie Mchugh, “at affordable places, like Aldi, the food is so gone through it’s crazy, all that’s left to pick from is scraps of shitty about-to-be-bad or already molded fruits and veggies.” There are few options for fresh produce if you are not making a comfortable income.

I could hardly believe in such a progressive country there are people who only get their food from gas stations. Imagine going on a “shopping haul” at a gas station that doesn’t make any food, and has significantly less of a selection than your average Wawa. How are people supposed to be healthier — improve their quality of life — when there are three fast food places within ten minutes but no access to any fresh or healthy food within ten miles?

I assumed the only explanation could be economic — it certainly wasn’t an ethical one — and I came upon the answer relatively quickly. Adhering to the basic laws of capitalism, supermarkets are going to gravitate towards high income areas: low income, means low profit.

This creates a Catch-22 for those affected. Eating healthy in food deserts is more expensive than in other areas. On top of it most of these people struggle to afford healthcare and necessary medications, they’re destined for illness, inevitable struggle.

This seems too deep of an inequality to confront, but people are trying.

In urban Dallas, Texas an organization called Grow North Texas is helping to create community gardens to provide fresh produce to food pantries. In Washington DC, Good Food Markets  partners with nonprofits and its surrounding neighborhoods to provide fresh groceries to an area previously labeled as a food desert. With support, little markets like this can completely alter the landscape of a community. Despite their struggle to succeed in a competitive marketplace, these projects are building connections (socially and dietarily), creating jobs, and most importantly, providing people with fresh produce in places where it would otherwise be hard to find.

The most important part of this effort is understanding the importance of informing people on the disparities of food access within our own country and overall changing our way of life regarding food. Physical health aside, food is cultural, there should be a connection between us and our meal: the direct giving of the Earth. In our greed, we are losing too much.