The Food Desert: When Mini-Mart Chimichangas Are a Cause for Celebration

“It’s chimichanga night!” – a seemingly innocuous statement in a long-ago interview of individuals attempting to survive on the then-minimum wage.  While I don’t recall what this particular guy did for a living that earned him no more than the lowest wage he could be paid, I remember the interviewer conveying the upbeat tone of the man as he talked about his affordable grocery options while he helped support himself, his mother and, maybe, a younger minor sibling or two while living in a rented trailer.  He was looking forward to the day they could “move on up” once he had the down payment to buy his own mobile home.

The regular diet of this 20-something dude was frozen burritos; it was what he could eke out of his small paycheck and still sustain himself.  As it was payday, Dude “splurged” and bought the more expensive chimichangas (I assumed also frozen).  “How sad,” I thought, “that this guy could afford so little and have so few options that convenience store frozen fried food once every two weeks is a bright spot.”  However, I guess I should’ve looked at his plight in a positive manner – that Dude was still able to remain cheery despite his current situation…

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This is a blog post I started to write on March 31st.  I hit a mental block as far as the direction I wanted to take so I set it aside until now.  For the past 1.5 weeks (and, really, since early April), my writing hit a standstill (health reasons, really); it was pretty frustrating but not especially worrying since I knew, at least, I qualified to register for IFBC at the active blogger rate.  Well, no, so I was told after I submitted my registration fee; I still needed to demonstrate I was blogging.  Okay, understood.  I still wanted to blog (the whole point of going to a blogger conference) so I was going to have to overcome the health issues and write.  Easier said than done as I’ve had multiple failed starts since then (I think I’m at 6 or 7 at this point).  Ever the perfectionist, I don’t want my post to seem pointless drivel.  However, I forget the first thing I told myself, which was that I’m writing for me and should anyone else be interested in reading what I have to write, then that’s a bonus.  Also, now that I think about it, even the most successful of writers don’t hit it out of the ballpark every time (remembering more than one author who has had books I just couldn’t get through although I greatly enjoyed the author’s other works).

So, back I am.  This could be a throwaway post while I continue to work through the other one.

A couple of incidents occurred in the past two weeks that compel me to think again about what I want to accomplish as food-related goals.  One was when I spoke with an individual regarding going into the underserved/impoverished communities and helping to provide them with things that are often seen as a given in sufficiently-established areas – basic needs like food and healthcare.  Another was when I was asked the other day why I write about food.  Both occurrences remind me that as much as Sacramento is touted as the “Farm-to-Fork Capital,” there are too many pockets that are still designated as “food deserts.”

What’s a “food desert,” you ask?  By the USDA definition, http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts, a food desert is a community where “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).”  As a reference point, I entered my zip code on the data map, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas/, which returned SEVEN census tracts where the residents live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket.  Upon also checking the box for those households more than ½ miles from the nearest supermarket and lacking vehicle access, another FIVE census tracts pop up.  These are areas typically heavily populated with mini-marts/convenience stores as the regular grocery option, such as the community of Dude mentioned above.  This data was last updated on May 18, 2017.

Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t done any thorough research, outside of checking the USDA site, but, for now, I’m going to trust its accuracy.  I drive through some of these food desert areas on an almost-daily basis and can see with my own eyes the distance to the closest grocery stores vs. the large number of convenience stores.  Juxtapose that with the crows of “Sacramento, the farm-to-fork capital of America!,” and it’s hard not to mentally wince when so many in the area continue to not have easy, or even reasonable, access to this abundance from the local farms.  I can’t help but ask myself how this is still an issue in an area like Sacramento and what is being done about it.

So, that’s a large part of why I’m here blogging.  You have to start somewhere.  I didn’t give a complete response the other day when I said my goal is to grow the food community in Sacramento.  What I meant is that my goal is to see the food community become more inclusive, to encompass ALL of Sacramento’s residents, not just those who can access and/or can afford this abundance.  My hat’s off to ongoing efforts to minimize the food-desert consequences, such as the food distribution program of Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (https://goo.gl/3knGT4) or the in-school food education provided by the Sacramento Food Literacy Center (https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/food-literacy-classes).  I’d like to try to do more.  I remember seeing a cooking demo at a food distribution.  The person doing the demo was showing the “captive audience” (aka clients waiting in line for their turn) how they could use some of the fresh produce they received to make a grilled veggie panini.  I know this was horribly pessimistic of me, but all I could think is, “I doubt a lot of these individuals have an interest or have the time it would take to make a grilled veggie panini, never mind the equipment” (side note – I have a ton of kitchen equipment yet even I don’t own a panini press).  I applaud the action to provide ideas, but my thinking is to meet clients partway and first consider what their eating habits are, what they like to eat, what they have readily/easily available to them, what they can afford, what kind of storage they have and how much time they have to cook.  For me, that wouldn’t equate “grilled veggie panini,” not at the beginning anyway.

When I used to volunteer for the (now defunct) SFB&FS Sunday Lunch program, the person-in-charge used to tell us a personal story of what prompted him to participate in this program.  I don’t remember his story, but I remember the story of the young woman who subbed for him one day.  It was a touching story of her mother’s experience as a small child traveling cross-country on the train with her mom (the young woman’s grandmother) and sister (the young woman’s aunt who was also a small child).  With tears in her eyes, the woman told us that her grandmother had but a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and no money to sustain them for the long trip and had no idea how they were going to survive once those ran out.  A conductor took them under his wing and out of his own pocket provided them with the means to eat until they reached the end of their journey.  I have my own addition from my father.  He grew up dirt poor in the Philippines, and, as the oldest child, searching for food for him, his mom and his four siblings was a daily occurrence (Grandpa was largely an absent figure).  Dad was a child himself with a burden upon him, excessive just by adult standards, so I couldn’t imagine how taxing this responsibility must have been for a child.

Dad once told us how he was able to only get one egg, ONE egg, and he had to figure out how to make that one egg stretch to feed the six of them.  Dad’s solution was to excessively salt the egg – so much so that when eating it, the individual could really only tolerate a tiny bit and accompany it with a lot of rice.  It always breaks my heart when I think of how they must’ve struggled so when I think of the abundance available here in Sacramento yet there remain numerous food deserts and individuals who are food insecure, then I feel I need to do something.

So, again, where to start?  I’m not a Sacramento native, and I’m an extreme introvert who regularly suffers from social anxiety so I really don’t know very many in the area.  This does not provide a solid foundation for success.  However, I’d like to think I’m resourceful enough to figure out the first few steps as I know the end result I’d like to achieve.  I joined a dining group when I first moved here over ten years ago, but I really just encountered others who like to find good places to eat.  I was part of a local food forum, but that closed down shortly after I joined.  I joined a couple of food book clubs, but like the dining group, those were really about the books.  Now what?  Start from scratch (to some extent), I say.  Regroup and assess.  See where I’ve made a start at networking and explore those avenues.  Pick one place and focus on developing that.  Above all else – stop being so timid about reaching out.

All roads lead to here, my blog.  I may not actually reach anybody but, if nothing else, it may prompt me to do more, to explore more.  I’d like to reach the individuals who aren’t really benefiting from this “farm to fork” bounty.  I’d like to see shopping tips and recipes that take into consideration all those variables I listed above.  It’s all well and good to claim that a recipe only takes a tablespoon of olive oil or a few ounces of cheese but when you live in a food desert from which you’re unable to escape, such recipes are pipe dreams.  I’d like to develop the skills and confidence to create dishes that utilize those ingredients which can usually be found at mini-marts but still try to be somewhat healthy (or healthier) yet tasty and/or somewhat familiar options.  I spent a few years growing up when we had no refrigerator so it would be nice to come up with realistic recipes using shelf-stable ingredients procured from a convenience store.  It would also be nice to see some resolution of the disparity between this abundance from local farms and availability in the more impoverished areas (government incentives for the farmers coupled with distribution to the food purveyors in those areas, perhaps?).  I realize this is a big hope and dream of mine but, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step (or something like that).

I do wonder what happened to long-ago Dude whose payday was made brighter with the knowledge he could afford a “step up” from his regular frozen burrito to a frozen fried burrito.  I hope he was able to secure a better existence for him and his family.

#kakainna #fooddeserts #farmtofork #SacramentoFoodBank #FoodLiteracyCenter #socalval

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