Fat and Fated? The Changeable State of Low-Income Communities, Part II

11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's not just finances and availability keeping low-income individuals from eating better food--though the two issues are undeniably at the heart of the problem. More complex still, is the urban and social structure upon which low-income neighborhoods are built: namely, the construction of urban landscapes and the food sources inside of them, as well as the associations attached to markets that sell fresh, locally grown food. Not only are low-income individuals discouraged from shopping at farmers' markets because of inaccessibility, they're also put off by the cost and the resulting notion that such markets are for affluent shoppers only. If the health of Americans and American society is to improve, these issues must be addressed.

To change the way people eat, healthy, fresh and affordable food must be directly accessible and properly marketed. Establishing farmers' markets and community gardens across low-income areas may be the most effective way of attracting attention to healthier fare, as they present a new, vibrant image of food. Unlike grocery stores, which are closed-off, and where human interaction is next to nil, farmers' markets are open and visible, presenting the opportunity for social interaction while consumers shop. It's hard to pass a farmers' market and not be attracted to the vivid colors, smells and energy of vendors who take care to make their produce appealing.

Providing a direct interaction between food and consumers is essential to changing the way people eat, especially those who consider fast food the norm. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods have been constructed to make fresh food nearly anathema. Studies show that low-income neighborhoods have a much higher proportion of fast food restaurants to population. But it is not enough to simply remove options, as California has done by banning the construction of fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. In fact, such initiatives are often perceived as threatening--examples of a pedantic, overly controlling government. Instead, the focus should be on adding attractive options that provide healthier (but equally affordable) options.

Even if markets were established across poor neighborhoods, however, cost and habit would likely remain major impediments, compounded by each other. For example, despite the availability of farmers' markets in several low-income neighborhoods in Houston, few nearby residents actually shop at those markets, because of a perception that they cannot afford it. This notable absence is pervasive and has contributed to a social stigma surrounding such markets: namely, that poor people can't participate.

Offering affordable produce and the means to purchase it could help change both the reality and the perception. First, a central message must be communicated: that while some items at farmers' markets are more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts, many items proliferate seasonally and are a bargain--take today's cost of eggplant and zucchini, for example, or the price of carrots and potatoes later in the season. Nevertheless, establishing farmers' markets in low-income neighborhoods will not be effective without proper marketing to consumers of interest.

Another major challenge facing farmers' markets is competing with stores and restaurants that accept food stamps. Even when fresh food is comparably affordable, many low-income individuals, especially those receiving food aid, will opt for subsidized food. In order to attract and maintain a customer base, all farmers' markets should all have the capacity to accept debit cards for people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Unfortunately, many farmers' markets nationwide have found it difficult to obtain the necessary funding to supply EBT machines for individuals receiving food stamps. Most markets need multiple EBT machines to facilitate transactions, but few have adequate finances to purchase the $1,000 + devices. Many have applied for grants to secure funding and to receive the necessary training to use the EBT machines, although it can be a drawn-out and bureaucratic process.

It is imperative that the social and economic stigmas attached to healthy, community-based food change: farmers' markets and community gardens cannot remain luxuries for those with time and money. Establishing vibrant food scenes in neighborhoods and communities across America--though especially in those where fast food and health problems abound--is fundamental to combating the precipitous rise in obesity and type 2 Diabetes. But making food available consists of more than just setting aside space for local farmers to sell their produce once a week: it means reaching out to new consumers and making it easy for them to participate. Setting up farmers' markets, advertising them to new consumers, and allowing consumers to use food stamps to purchase better food should be a top priority to local governments concerned with the well-being of their communities.