eating in a food desert…

I eat constantly. I’ll admit it. And it’s even more pronounced when I’m training (at least then I have a good reason!). I’ll admit I never thought much about the concept of a “food desert” until I started working 35 miles “out of town” at the end of 2011, in the heart of rural America. Food deserts, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income community without ready access to healthy and affordable food, have gotten some attention recently. Ironically, despite the fact that the food we eat is often grown in rural America, many rural towns lack access to healthy and affordable food.

Sure, there’s a grocery store where I work – right across the street even. But the healthy options are not prolific. The produce leaves a little something to be desired. The quick options consist of fried stuff (chicken, French fries and Jo Jos) and of course you can always grab a box of donuts. And there are always lots and lots of processed foods to choose from. Beyond the grocery store, there are a couple of greasy spoon diners and 1 fast food restaurant. Gag. Fried food reigns supreme, with scarce options for healthy choices. For someone like me, that won’t cut it.

Every night before I go to bed, I pack breakfast, lunch and snacks to get me through the work day and the mid-day workout. Which is usually fine. Except that I may have mentioned that training takes up So. Much. Time. And it makes me too lazy to go grocery shopping. Which means that too often, my refrigerator is E-M-P-T-Y, save for some tortillas, and a maybe a couple of beers. And some salad dressings. Enough for a wrap style version of what was once my little brother’s favorite: condiment sandwiches. Gross then. Gross now. (Love you Mikey!)

So yesterday, I got back from a long, hot run,grabbed some water and stuck my lunch in the microwave. Excellent – this is really going to hit the spot, I thought to myself. And then I dropped it. All over the floor. WHAAAAAAAAAT?! Way to go. Lunch went from almost fulfilling to a tease. Four measly bites instead of 12. Or 24. We’ll never know. And that was all I had with me. Even the snacks I usually stash were depleted. It was a long, hungry afternoon. Yes, woe is me.

But it was just the kick in the behind that I needed to restock things on the home front and last night, after my bike ride, I hit the grocery store even though it was late and I was stinky and sweaty and in desperate need of a shower. I filled my basket with produce, ah produce – fruits for smoothies and snacks, veggies for salads and stir-frys – hopefully enough to get me through the weekend even. Apparently, these days, a cart full of produce will get you a comment from the clerk, “Healthy living!” indeed! And today, I packed wayyyy too much healthy food for the day, over planned, if you will, determined not to be hungry after today’s lunchtime swim workout, should I happen to develop butterfingers again!

hip, hip, hooray!

(Quick side note here: I live “in town”, I have a safe and reliable method of transportation, and every day I pass no less than a dozen grocery stores well stocked with health options. Twice- on my way to work and again on my way home.  I recognize that I am fortunate to have infinitely more options than those who live in rural America or elsewhere in the world – all I need to do is plan ahead. I’m well aware that I don’t have an actual problem here, unlike many who live in food deserts who actually do face a significant challenge to eating healthy.

Food deserts are an interesting concept. The lack of healthy and affordable food is certainly an obstacle to health, especially when you add to the fact that fried, unhealthy food is usually cheap and oh-so-very-convenient, making it an appealing option for many across the country, not just rural residents. And let’s face it, a lack of access to healthy and affordable foods, or even just choosing fried anything-and-everything day after day commonly leads to and later compounds problems with obesity and diabetes. Many communities, including the one where I work, are working to find solutions and attempting to reverse the trend by forming fresh food coalitions and community gardens, encouraging physical activity, and hard working to educate folks on the realities of the health problems that are directly linked to the lack of healthy foods and made worse from a lack of physical activity. Hopefully progress is on the horizon, but change is often slow.) 

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