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Dinner in the Desert

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With 49 million Americans, including 17 million children, classified as food insecure (meaning they lack regular access to food), it's hard to ignore this serious crisis facing our nation. What is missing from the discussion though, are the faces of this epidemic. They're young, old and of all colors and ethnicities, living in rural and urban areas. Many are found in food deserts: neighborhoods sprinkled with bodegas and liquor stores whose offerings are limited to junk foods and sodas. They don't have access to farmers markets, artisanal bakeries, supermarkets or other fresh food options dotting the streets of many middle and upper class communities. These people frequently rely on food stamps and don't have the resources to afford healthier foods. Ironically, two-thirds of our country is overweight or obese, and many of these people live in these food deserts and as a result are actually mal- or under-nourished. A recent University of Wisconsin study found that the cost of nutritious foods -- fruits and veggies -- continues to climb while the prices for junk food went up much less. We all pay the price having millions of malnourished and under-nourished Americans.

In light of these statistics, it was alarming to read Ed Bruske's article in Grist. "Americans hate feeding poor children at school," Bruske wrote. The former Washington Post reporter and now Washington, DC food activist describes the responses to a story about a program to feed 10,000 needy children dinners at school. A shocking 46 percent opposed the initiative, asking, "why should schools spend money -- some $5.7 million in this case -- to feed hungry children who should be eating at home?"

Since when does our society not have a responsibility to care for its most needy and vulnerable citizens? We all bear the consequences if these children don't eat. They have worse educational outcomes and have more long-term health problems. When should children ever be punished for the wrong-doings of adults? Children's lack of regular access to food is due to institutional and economic problems like living in food deserts, the high cost of nutritious foods and government farm subsidies which support the growing of things like corn and soy, the primary ingredients in junk foods. Sadly, these kids aren't getting much support or help from their fellow District residents or the politicians occupying Congress in their hometown.

Under the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which is now languishing in the House, the Senate passed a version which only included a measly six cents more for school lunches, which are already shrink-wrapped concoctions of highly processed fat- and sugar-laden meals. This is certainly not enough to swap out tater tots or pizza for salad and fruits in school lunches.

As a result, efforts to make school lunches healthier seem to be relegated to the local movement with groups like the Farm to School Network and Will Allen's Growing Power and people such as Chef Ann Cooper, who is teaming up with Whole Foods to start the Great American Salad Bar Project. Under her program, Whole Foods shoppers can donate to local schools to support the construction of salad bars. It's a worthy feat for those hungry kids living within 50 miles of a Whole Foods market. But, as Tom Philpott of Grist points out, there are millions more schools well beyond the reach, or minds, of Whole Foods shoppers. And, if they have to deal with the same type of angry reaction like those of DC residents, then I'm not sure what type of support they will be able to find.

Even if these kids are visible to many Whole Foods shoppers (as they surely are in Washington, DC home to a plethora of the chain's stores in the city's wealthy and gentrifying neighborhoods), there's the infrastructural challenges that will continue to perpetuate this societal problem. We can't solve this systemic problem without widespread involvement and support to reduce government subsidies for junk food crops and greater support for the establishment of healthy options in food deserts. Most importantly, as Bruske wrote, "they see no problem with our junk food culture, and do not buy into the idea that children -- least of all poor black children -- should be eating better than anyone else." Ultimately, we must continue to address our institutional racism which continues to rear its head in ugly ways today, such as trying to deny children a healthy dinner.

Learn more about these efforts to improve school lunches and address food deserts:

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