Sunday, March 7, 2010

Let's Move: Grocery Shopping with Michelle Obama

Every Friday afternoon, I descend into the underbelly of Cyrus Lodge #5. I know nothing about the spiritual journeys of the Freemasons who meet in this small building, but I know a lot about their industrial kitchen. The old ten-burner gas stove, huge sinks, tall wooden cabinets labeled “condiments” and secured with padlocks. Sometimes, because of an unfortunate scheduling conflict, I even see what’s for dinner: ham with more marble than meat, meatloaf, and peach halves swimming in heavy syrup, floating in a jar like jellyfish.

My youngest and I spend forty-five minutes pacing the tile floor, learning interesting new words like, “lighter fluid” and “ammonia” as she points to the collection of child-not-proofed bottles stashed in corners of the room.

Sometimes, if we are lucky, we catch a glimpse through a broken window into the meeting hall beyond. There we see, dancing in the distance, the reason we endure this purgatory. It’s intro to dance for the four year old set and to them, and their dedicated teacher, everything is pink and rosy.

But, where we are, there are no chairs or even open walls to lean against; just hazmats and the occasional open flame. The hostile environment has given the moms a sort of cohesion, like prisoners in the back of a police van.

“Are we getting out soon?” I ask, looking around for anyone with a watch.

A few mumbles and a shake of the head. No. Another fifteen to go.

So, it caused quite a stir last week when we got a visitor.

Down the steps, with a spring in his step, came Ken, the father of one of the dancers. He wore a handsome overcoat and a suit and tie, and, although I couldn’t identify it at the time, something else.

“Oh, he’s back,” my friend, his wife, Wendy, said, as he headed our way. “He was in Philadelphia.”

Ah, yes, the world above, I’d forgotten about the light, the air, the--

“Actually,” she said, “it was kind of a big event. It was with the First Lady.”

“The First Lady?”

Of course I had only one question.

“Was she wearing J. Crew?”

He had no idea. Apparently, he was there for some sort of policy issue and not wardrobe ideas.

His work, he told me, was to figure out how to bring grocery stores to underserved areas. The First Lady had come to Philadelphia because Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative was about to become a national model. So, it was presidential fairy dust he was wearing that had given him that otherworldly glow. It was well deserved, too, and not just because he’d scored an invitation to the event with Michelle Obama. When it came down to it, it was the White House who’d come to him. Or, the company he works for, The Reinvestment Fund, (TRF).

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Let’s Move campaign, recently launched by Michelle Obama. The NFL’s Play 60, which got a lot of hype at the end of the season, is part of the larger agenda to encourage more physical activity and better eating habits among children, who now have a thirty percent obesity rate.

The White House’s Let’s Move hopes to end that trend. There are four strategies: Healthy Choices, which aims to educated parents with a new food pyramid, front-of label nutritional information, and regular monitoring of children’s BMI at pediatrician visits; Healthier Schools, which would offer more healthful food and exercise; Physical Activity, a campaign to encourage 60 minutes a day of exercise or play, and the last goal, to promote Accessible and Affordable Healthy Food.

This is where Ken and The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) come in.

To fully appreciate what Ken did you have to remember a simple little rule. The word dessert, is double sweet, and has two “s’s”. I don’t know if it was because it was late, or I was hankering for a snack, but when I first read about, “food deserts”, areas with a void of accessible, healthy food, I immediately thought of cherry pie, brownies and hot chocolate chip cookies. You see how this misreading of data might not fit in with the White House agenda.

Thankfully, PhD’s like Ken have mastered third grade spelling. Ken’s task was to figure out how many people are in “food deserts”, and where these deserts are located. “I developed a method that gives a more accurate count (than previously known) and actually identifies geographic areas in need of supermarkets.”

These locations are called, Low Access Areas, and Ken has a map of them. Would he spill the beans and tell me where they are? No. That’s private. Even to mommies hanging out in the industrial kitchen.

What has been announced is the number of Americans TRF estimates live in these areas. Twenty-three million. And, 80% of those are in low and moderate income communities.

TRF’s work with the Food Trust and Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative has been to target areas in need of grocery stores and figure out a way to get them built. They’ve used debt financing and small subsidy grants, as well as a few other strategies that Ken says help overcome market inefficiencies. Since 2004, they have funded eighty-one stores, and created 4,800 jobs. The state contributed $30 million, but TRF raised an additional $90 million in private money.

When Jeremy Nowak, the head of TRF, spoke at a House Subcommittee meeting last December, he mentioned one of these new stores, The Fresh Grocer. The people in the North Philadelphia neighborhood in which it was built had been without a decent grocery store for ten years. The store sits on land that was the home of the first African-American owned shopping center. And, of the 270 jobs it has created, 75% are for people who live within 2 miles. This was the place Michelle Obama visited just hours before Ken saw her.

What is the national model?

Nowak said that if the government invested one billion and the private sector matched it, 15.3 million people living in low to moderate income levels would have improved access to healthy food; 2,100 stores could be funded; 50 million square feet of retail space could be built or rehabilitated; and 29,000 full time and 119,000 part time jobs would be created or retained.

Would this solve childhood obesity?

It seems impossible to make healthy food choices if you can’t find a store that sells them. Making the food truly affordable, and a realistic alternative, might be the job of the other pillars of the Let’s Move Campaign. But if one billion seems like a big investment, just think, we spend 150 billion per year on obesity-related conditions.

And, a little education in the early years goes a long way. My four year old daughter recently made a grocery store in our den, with what might be called parental subsidies. I was commission to make a sign for the store, and I wrote the following in magic marker as it was dictated to me: Heidi’s Best Market, with lots of food to make you healthy and lots of food to eat and drink so you can do lots of things that are important. The slogan needs a little tweaking, but the idea is catchy.

When I was little, the federal government wanted to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, instead of condiments, in the federally subsidized school lunch programs—saving an estimated one billion dollars. While ketchup may be kept under lock and key in Cyrus Lodge #5, I am glad Ken is part of this administration’s efforts to make actual fruit and vegetables a bit easier to get.

The Let’s Move Website has more details, including a link to the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas. You can feel like an amateur researcher, charting how many grocery stores are in your county, per capita expenditure on fast food, and relative price of low-fat milk. No surprise that milk is .8 in Dane County, Wisconsin, compared to 1.05 in Mercer County, NJ. But, compare the low-income childhood obesity rate: 11.1 for Dane County; nearly double (20.1) in my county here, in the beautiful garden state......


Wendy said...

Love it, Sarah! I will forward your link onto Ken. Well done, as usual :)

Anonymous said...

another great one, Sarah. Love Heidi's grocery store slogan ...

Houston! said...

There was a documentary a few years ago, or maybe ten about white bread vs. brown bread - or something to that effect - about grocery stores in low income areas and how they could only afford to sell white bread and all the health hazards that come with that...Sorry, this is a lame attempt at remembering. But, your post reminded me of that. How food choices make such a big difference. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

terrific post, sarah, on a very important subject...

bonnie said...

Very interesting post. I would love to get involved with something like this when I one day leave the SAHM world and go back to work.