By Laurie M. Tisch, Huffington Post
Last week, Michelle Obama, together with national retailers SuperValu, Walgreens and Walmart, committed to bringing fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods to areas that have little or no access to healthy foods. Within this new and bold partnership, these retailers and policy makers are working together to build and expand 1,500 stores in the next five years.
There's an appetite for a variety of initiatives that will work against expanding American waistlines, especially in our cities. At a time when the federal budget is about to be slashed, there are partnership opportunities where private donors can help supplement public funds. From Aspen to New York and Madison to New Orleans, cities around the country are listening to and engaging in discussions about food access, nutrition-related health problems and how to get fresh produce into urban areas where the main source of food is fast and unhealthy.
The food problem in our country is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, 72.5 million Americans are obese and over $146 billion is spent annually on obesity-related health costs. By 2020, this number will rise to $343 billion. Yet, according to the nonprofit Feeding America, one in six people don't have enough to eat. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 44.2 million Americans (14.3% of the population) use food stamps.
Rather than going hungry, millions of Americans are turning to calorie-dense fast food that won't break the bank. Our nation's most underserved areas are swamped with processed, high-fat and nutritionally lacking choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. These communities are literally starving for affordable produce that will offer a healthier option. Think about it -- if you are hungry and have a dollar to spend, are you going to buy a hamburger or a bruised banana, when you might have to walk much farther to find the banana?
Our struggling economy has only exacerbated this problem. As unemployment continues to hold steady in this country at 9.2 percent, thousands of New Yorkers are turning to food banks and soup kitchens, and increasing pressure on infrastructure, non-profits and the government to feed a city of millions. People have less money, the city has less to give and there are fewer fruits and vegetables available to provide critical nutrients to children and adults alike.
But programs that bring affordable, wholesome foods to neighborhoods that crave them are popping up everywhere and creating jobs along the way. According to the organizations involved, with the development of more SuperValus, Walgreens and Walmarts, there will be tens of thousands of jobs created to build and operate these stores.
Three years ago, New York City invested in one such strategy called the NYC Green Cart program, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's mobile produce vending initiative. Since that time, over 400 carts loaded with fruits and vegetables have rolled out to areas that previously had very little access to fresh and healthy foods. This program aims to take advantage of the street cart culture of this city to bring produce into these communities, while encouraging entrepreneurship, with each vendor owning and operating their individual carts.
Of course, there have also been many challenges to increasing food access in some of the world's largest urban centers. A lack of knowledge about how to use the produce to create an appealing and filling dish is a real problem that must be addressed. With many families on food stamps, we must look at incorporating EBT readers, which function as a debit card for food stamps, into the street vending model. There's also the issue of feisty competition between local shops, big box retail and the pushcart venders. Most frustrating of all, it can take 20 years or longer for a healthy diet to make a dent in the obesity statistics, and we can't yet show that putting fruits and vegetables on a neighborhood corner means that the community will eat fewer fried foods and cheeseburgers.
What we can say is that we're learning as we go. The Green Carts are not a silver bullet. It is just one, local strategy for addressing a nationwide challenge and should serve as a template, one that can be molded to fit the culture unique to other American cities.
Whether we look at adding more fruits and vegetables to Philadelphia's soup kitchens, or work on bringing cheaper farmer's markets to the streets of Chicago, every additional apple in the hand of a child is a success. With small movements like this, we can increase the number of fruits and vegetables available on our streets, demonstrate the importance of a healthy body and mind as a precursor to a happy and successful life, and showcase U.S. inner cities as the example of a leaner tomorrow.
Laurie M. Tisch is president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, a charitable enterprise that builds on a longstanding commitment to enable more New Yorkers to take advantage of the rich opportunities that the city has to offer.