Take a moment and think of the last time you took the bus to the grocery store. For some of us, it’s never been necessary. For others, it was yesterday. Where I live in Greenwood, I have the privilege of not only being able to afford healthy food, but also being able to walk to the grocery store to buy it. However, many people in King County don’t have access to a stable source of fresh, healthy and affordable food.
This past year, as a senior at the Center School, I investigated inequalities in food access in King County and spoke to many people, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. When we spoke in April, McGinn told me: “Access to healthy foods is a significant public health issue, not just for the city of Seattle, but for the nation.”
Areas that lack access to fresh, healthy, affordable food are often called food deserts, and people who live in them can have higher levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The United States Department of Agriculture recognizes 6,529 food deserts nationwide, affecting 23 million people across the country. King County has 17, affecting around 125,000 people. But inequalities in food access in King County impact public health and extend far beyond the boundaries of food deserts.
When food deserts began gaining attention in 1990, the obesity rate in King County was 6.2 percent. By 2011, more than half of the county’s adults were considered overweight and 20 percent obese. An alarming 1 in 5 young people are considered overweight or obese. According to the 2012 King County Public Health review, 12 percent of African-American adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, a shockingly disproportionate statistic, given that the countywide rate of diabetes among all adults is 5.4 percent.
Tammy Nguyen, healthy foods access coordinator for the Seattle nonprofit GotGreen, said low-income people and people of color suffer the most from lack of access to healthy food. Others agree, including University of Washington professor Anne Vernez Moudon, who sees food access as an economic issue.
In a recent study she conducted, Moudon found that only 3 percent of vulnerable populations in King County were able to walk to a low-cost supermarket, which in part led her to conclude that
“[i]nequitable access to healthy, affordable foods in some U.S. communities may be one reason for the observed social disparities in health.”
When we spoke, McGinn told me he knew that many people lack access to affordable, quality food in the Seattle area, and he wondered how we could “change our culture” to increase access. Nguyen, with GotGreen, said she thought a change might come when we address food cost: “One woman we surveyed mentioned that a bag of grapes can be $4 or $5, but a bag of Top Ramen is only 99 cents. Why is our healthier food more expensive?”
But while we can’t make healthy food cheaper tomorrow, the situation is far from hopeless. On a national level, Michelle Obama has worked to improve healthy food access through her Let’s Move! campaign, yet the most successful solutions tend to be small, community-driven changes on the local level.
Take Stockbox, for example, a neighborhood mobile-grocery run out of a cargo container. Stockbox staff spent time attending community meetings to learn how they could best serve the South Park neighborhood before they built their store there. The store’s healthy food costs less than comparable items sold at nearby convenience stores.
When healthy food advocates promote a belief in a better tomorrow, we can work toward a time when fast food — the cheap, packaged time bombs of society — are safely diffused. With this belief, diet-related disease can be relegated to historical medical texts. Then we can move toward a day when healthy food is easily accessible to all.