Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts on Food Deserts and Dietary Restrictions

There are about 12 million people in the United States alone who suffer from life-threatening food allergies. Many more than that suffer from food intolerances, which while not necessarily life threatening, reduce quality of life and can cause severe health problems. Thus, when we began covering food deserts, I could not help but wonder if I could even live in an area with such limited access to food due to my own dietary restriction. Personally, I cannot digest gluten, a common protein found in wheat and many other grains. This immediately takes almost every fast-food option off of the table. A quick glance at the nutritional information for McDonald's, for a quick example, reveals that virtually every item is off limits, and those that are not are almost guaranteed to be contaminated by the other items served at the restaurant. Even then, the disclosed information is not required by the FDA to be accurate, or even label the most common allergens. Just two years ago, McDonald's revealed that they had not had accurate information regarding their french fries, as this MSNBC article elaborates. First they revealed they were dishonest regarding the vegetarian status of their fries, and later it was revealed that their allergen information was incorrect. So now that fast food restaurants are eliminated, all that is left is simply the convenience stores and what is likely an inconveniently located, distant grocery store or supercenter type of shopping place. Convenience stores are hardly better than the fast food option. Just about every processed food will contain at least one allergen, as is easily seen by the prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup. There are some foods, like fortified bread, that could be an essential source of certain nutrients which would be completely cut off from those with dietary issues. Fortified cereals or breads can provide such nutrients as folic acid and B-vitamins, which can prevent birth defects. If you cannot eat even one common ingredient in these, an entire source of important nutrition is cut off. Certainly there are natural sources of these, like leafy greens and citrus fruit, but those in food deserts are already denied easy access to these foods. For those with the money, they can do as Lorrain Karchenes did, and turn to the internet for ordering expensive specialty foods. Shipping on those, however, can be upwards of $40 or more if they must be preserved, and there is no guarantee they can even be delivered to your area reliably. Amazon can deliver some specialty mixes and foods for less now, but they still mostly require some fresh ingredients to prepare. A home garden is a possibility in a rural area, but this can also be an expensive and time-consuming proposition, especially if your work week is long and unforgiving. In urban areas, a garden is almost completely impossible. Sure, you could try for a windowbox of something, but it will again be an expensive and difficult proposition. The other possibility it to regularly travel an inconvenient distance to a grocery store which might not even be able to cater to your needs, although you are surely guaranteed to be able to find more edible products than would be in a convenience store. In the end, it seems like those with food issues living in a food desert would quickly find themselves having to decide between many unsavory options, the worst of which would cause them to gamble with their health and take the risk of eating something which could make them ill, or worse.


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