produceLast night, my brother, who is a fresh food Nazi hippy advocate posted a Slate article titled Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem which made the (not so) startling declaration that access to better food didn’t necessarily translate to improved health for people experiencing poverty. He expressed incredulity at that, saying:

“Having access to fresh food doesn’t make people healthier? I find that hard to believe.” (He said more, but we’ll get to that later)

He is right; real food is better for you. Even if it didn’t lengthen your life span (it does), it will make the years you have better ones. Of course, that’s if you actually eat it. The problem here is as much the lifestyle forced upon people who live in poverty as it is one of access  . When just about every waking moment trying to keep your head above water,  you just want to get the calories you need to survive. Where those calories come from is a luxury; one you may not the time to worry about.

This issue is exacerbated by Congress’ insistence on reducing SNAP benefits, which  they’ve just done (again) in the new farm bill. Cutting food aid makes it harder for people to buy & eat the food that will keep them healthy. Sure, SNAP has it’s issues, but cutting it just puts more of a strain on the Medicaid & Medicare budgets. Because, as Jeff (my brother) said “…processed food just ain’t real food. And real food is what makes us healthier.”

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative was meant to be a solution to the health issues many people dealing with poverty experience. And, it’s a good one…, as far as it goes. Because access to fresh food is all well and good, but if people don’t have the time, energy  or equipment to prepare that food, all the access in the world doesn’t mean shit.

If you want to see a significant improvement in the health of people in low-income areas, you need to do more than provide access to better quality food. There should  be educational efforts to help people understand why they should eat this fresh food as opposed to what they’re eating now; initiatives to get people off the street and into decent housing with place to prepare that fresh food and  a raise in the minimum wage so they don’t have to work insane hours to get by. That way, they can afford better food and have the time and energy to fix it.

But, the most important thing you could do is go to these neighborhoods and engage the people you say you want to help. I say that’s most important because help that doesn’t address the actual issues isn’t really help at all and the best way to find out what the issues are is to talk to the people experiencing them. Because, if you want to make a real difference in someone’s life, you do things with them, not to them.