Monday, June 16, 2008

Access to food and walkable communities

I moved to Louisiana just after college. I spent the four previous years living carless in Philadelphia. The transition from a carless lifestyle in a city to what I like to call the smallest big city in America was eye opening. So many things about that move changed how I view food and the way we buy, prepare, and eat it. Two things about my personal experience really stick in my mind: access to healthy food and walkable communities.

I moved to southeast Louisiana just a few weeks after Katrina and Rita hit. Everything was in chaos, and I'm still amazed that I managed to find a place to live. People laughed when I asked if they had any vacancies. A friend of a future coworker decided it was easier to rent to me than to call back all 400 people who had left messages on his answering machine about his one vacant apartment. I rented the apartment sight unseen.

The dishwasher was broken, the water tasted fishy, the bathroom walls were made of glass, and there was a hole in the doorway where one night a frog wandered in and climbed into my bed. And yet I was relieved to have anywhere to live at all. But what a change it was from Philadelphia.

Just like in Philadelphia, I lived within a mile of a supermarket, a pharmacy, a video store, and a park. But in my new neighborhood, it was impossible to walk to any of them. There were no sidewalks, the road, where cars careened at 50mph, had no shoulder, the edge of the road quickly gave way to a water drainage ditch that was tacky with mud, and an interstate highway separated me from that supermarket. And so I no longer walked to work and on errands. I no longer took an evening stroll to relax. And I gained 10 pounds.

As I neared the end of my first year, I began looking for a new place to live. A year after Katrina and Rita, the vacancy rate in my town still rivaled Manhattan's. I had two requirements for a new apartment: sidewalks and somewhere worth walking to. It took a month of combing the streets looking for "for rent" signs (no one bothered to advertise, places went so fast), but I finally rented the first floor of a building downtown. There were sidewalks. And I could use them to walk to a library, museums, restaurants, the post office, parks, the bank, and the Saturday morning farmers market.

And slowly the weight came off.

But I haven't gotten rid of my car yet. Even though there are many, many places for me to walk to in my new neighborhood, there's not a single supermarket. The closest grocery store is about three miles away down a very busy street. I considered taking my bike, but a friend who works in the ER told me how she always sees immigrants in the ER who have tried to bike down my city's main streets. And I, too, see them every week. I hold my breath as I watch them pedal down the street, groceries hanging from a broom stick tied to the handlebars of their bikes as cars pass them honking their horns.

For people in my neighborhood without cars, and many of my neighbors can't afford them, the only choice besides the farmers market (only open for four hours on Saturday morning) or restaurants is a convenience store. The kind of store where you can buy packaged, shelf-stable food and a gallon of really expensive milk. The kind that doesn't carry any fresh food whatsoever.

And it became clear to me that there's no one big problem with our food system. It's a series of problems. I constantly hear people say that fat people have no self control and that the poor could eat well if they really tried. But it's not lack of control and laziness. It's a hundred little obstacles in the way like a highway blocking the path to the grocery store.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree -- our built environment is terrible in much of America. Makes you wonder how we could be so short-sighted.