August 21, 2013

The Food Desert: at Food Express with Ray

"It's very hard to find fruits and vegetables in Detroit."

The Food Desert: Food Express

Food Express, 9911 E. Jefferson, Detroit, MI 48214

Apples: $1.99/pound | Bananas: $.59/pound | Oranges: $1.00 for 2

Community Profile for Zip Code 48214
Educational Attainment for persons older than 25-years:
Percent High School Graduate or Higher
Median Household Income
Unemployment Rate for persons age 16-years and older.
Percentage of Population Below Poverty Level
[20 percent lower than national rate of 93.0%]
[48 percent lower than national Median    Household Income of $52,762]
[38 percent higher than the national rate of 9.6%]
[133 percent higher than the national rate of 15.0%]
Source: American Fact Finder courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau:

Interview: Ray McDonald

What does healthy food mean to you?
"Healthy food means, in general, food that's got seeds in it. Healthy food is food that god prepared, not man."

Is it hard for you to find fruits and vegetables in the city of Detroit?
"Very hard. Even at Eastern Market. I got a homeboy that works out there, he say they take all the good food and send it across 8 mile [the street that separates Detroit from its northern suburbs]; leave all the bad food down here for us."

So the food we're surrounded by now; you wouldn't consider this "good food"? What about it is unhealthy to you?
"Pesticides. We get the worse end of the crop. Seems like Detroit always gets the bottom of the barrel. The worse, picked-over food ever."

The Complete Interview

Noah's Thoughts

I think Ray raises concerns at the heart of the very concept of a food desert. After the on-camera interview, I discussed some of those issues with Ray. Here's a point-by-point account of our conversation and a discussion of some points raised by Ray that I feel deserve thorough discussion:

What we consider healthy
Ray describes healthy food as food unaltered by humans. Using this criterion, it would be nearly impossible to find healthy food without a time machine or a space ship. Nearly all modern fruits and vegetables – including favorites like applesbananas, and corn – are the result of thousands of years of agricultural tinkering by humans. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about foods that have been modified by humans. Conversely, just because something exists in nature, does not mean it is inherently safe. Cyanide, grizzly bears, and ebola all exist in nature. Ultimately, the safety of a thing must be determined by looking at the inherent traits of that thing. Whether or not it was modified by nature or by people is irrelevant.

Speaking of things modified by humans, Ray also raises concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Genetic modification of food is a relatively new technology; in widespread use for about 16 years. I think its important to cautiously apply any new technology. I also think when it comes to questions of fact, its important to accept the scientific consensus on that question. The scientific consensus is that GMO are as safe as conventionally-derived foods. For more reading on this topic, I highly recommend this article in Scientific American.

All pesticides are bad
Ray asserts that the conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables that surround him in Food Express are unhealthy because pesticides were used in their manufacture. I think its important to note that both organic and conventionally-grown crops contain trace amounts of pesticide (though a recent meta-analysis at Stanford University concluded non-organic fruits and vegetables on average have higher trace amounts). The primary difference: the pesticides on conventionally-grown foods are synthetic; pesticides on organically-grown produce are naturally-derived. This, however, is a distinction without a difference. It comes back to assessing a thing based on its inherent characteristics. Whether a pesticide is produced in a chemistry lab or produced in the 4.5-billion-year-old chemistry lab we call Earth, its harm is determined by its chemical composition. If a naturally-occurring pesticide has the exact same chemical composition as a lab-created pesticide, it has the exact same ability to harm body and environment.

If you want to avoid pesticides altogether, you might need to dig a little deeper than the product's labeling. As science writer and University of Hawaii PhD student in cell and molecular biology Christie Wilcox notes in an article for Scientific American, some farmers – of both the conventional and organic stripe – use pesticide-free farming methods:

"To really know what you’re in for, it’s best if you know your source, and a great way to do that is to buy locally. Talk to the person behind the crop stand, and actually ask them what their methods are if you want to be sure of what you’re eating."

Concerns about pesticides aside, its also worth discussing the relative nutritional value of organic and conventional crops. The aforementioned Stanford meta-analysis found non-organic produce to be more-or-less just as nutritious as their pricier organic counterparts.

Ugly bell peppers need love too
After I cut the camera off, I talked to Ray about the "marked up" peppers he pointed out. I noted that people in the Western world have come to regard superficially-blemished produce as practically un-edible. This is mostly because the Western world is so rich, that our grocers and food producers take produce that is completely edible, albeit ill-shaped or slightly blemished, and systematically throw it in the garbage. Or do they...

Send the ugly food to Detroit
Many moons ago, when I was an angry Black Nationalist on Michigan State University's green and White campus, I would have been more or less open to Ray's assertion that sub-standard food is sent to Detroit because farmers hate black people. In my old age, I've become less persuaded by the spectre of shadowy, malignant, unsubstantiated, racially-motivated conspiracies. Given the financially perilous state of American farming, it seems more likely that farmers happily sell their produce to anyone willing and able to buy.

If markets in economically-depressed communities have more superficially unattractive produce, this is probably because consumers in those communities have less ability to pay for perfectly symmetrical, blemish-free produce. Notice that I single-out looks as what differentiates low- and high-end produce. A Ferrari looks better than a Toyota Camry, but all cars should be safe to drive.  I think its fair to charge more for better looking fruits and vegetables, but all fruits and vegetables should be equally safe to eat.

Poor people deserve to have safe food. However, just like there aren't many Ferrari dealerships in Detroit, there probably aren't going to be many perfectly symmetrical, perfectly unblemished bell peppers.

Saran-wrapping it up
I am endlessly fascinated by the way our perception frames our view of reality. Perception can lead us to imagine ourselves marooned in a food desert even as we are surrounded by healthy food. After I finished the on-camera interview with Ray, I went on to tell him what motivated me to start The Food Desert project.

I told him that I grew up in Highland Park (a municipality within Detroit's city limits) in a family without many resources. I told him that despite these limitations, we managed to eek out a relatively healthy diet composed mostly of staple grains, fruits, and vegetables procured mostly from neighborhood grocery stores.

I told him that I'm the kind of person who is almost pathologically inclined to correct misrepresentations of fact. When the notion of the Detroit food desert gained traction in the popular consciousness, I felt inclined to speak up. This representation did not jive with my experience. I felt compelled to see if it squared with the experiences of other Detroiters. I told Ray that I think many people in low-income communities pass over fruits and vegetables in neighborhood markets not because they are holding out for perfectly unblemished, pesticide-free, non-GMO alternatives; but because they'd rather just have a bag of Cheetos. The most effective thing we can do to improve health and fitness in urban communities, is encourage people to make better choices concerning food and physical activity. 

Ray agreed.

I truly enjoyed my conversation with Ray. I am truly enjoying the all of the conversations around diet and health I am having with Detroiters. I look forward to bringing you, kind reader, along for the journey. When the project is completed, I hope it spurs people in urban communities across America to embrace healthy choices that they previously may have been oblivious to.

Thank you for looking in, kind reader.

[View more of the Food Desert series]


Noah -

Noah Stephens  founded The People of Detroit Photodocumentary in April 2010 as a counterpoint to media fixated on despair and disrepair in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing. Since, TPOD has received national and international attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other national publications. 

No comments: