Letter to the editor of the Daily Nebraskan (Feb 18)

Kudos to the Daily Nebraskan staff for shedding light on the important issues of food access and eating habits with two pieces on UNL City Campus as a food desert on Feb. 5. Having lived near campus without a car for three years, I agree that a downtown supermarket would be very convenient. However, if “greening” the food desert is to truly create healthier eating habits, we must think beyond the food desert as we know it.

Last week, a National Public Radio piece showed that opening a new produce-stocked grocery store in a Philadelphia food desert did not change people’s eating habits. This is not surprising. Think about it: even if we succeeded in locating a grocery store in downtown Lincoln, would most students gravitate towards fresh fruits and vegetables, or pre-packaged snacks and frozen/instant meals? Somehow, I don’t see the “drunk O Street post-2 a.m. masses” satiating their munchies with broccoli and bananas.

While inconvenient access to fresh food is a major barrier to healthy eating, our “fast food culture” is an equally, if not even greater, challenge to healthier diets. Our 24/7 lifestyles are filled with marketing messages that continually emphasize that we have limited time to prepare or eat real food (but, somehow, plenty of time to surf Facebook). Additionally, those who do have an intention to eat well may not have the knowledge or resources to prepare healthful meals for themselves. We need to acknowledge that UNL students are living in both a physical AND cultural food desert. One cultural solution is better nutritional and culinary education. Another is the prioritizing of time for one of our most basic biological needs and cultural traditions – connecting with, preparing and savoring our food.

The fact is that food does not have to come from a store. After all, are we not in Nebraska? The agricultural state that claims to feed the world? By embracing the simple truth that real food comes from plants, animals and farmers, we can begin moving towards more transformative and innovative ways to address our physical and cultural food desert. We can start with two simple initiatives:

(1) An on-campus farmers market: Many universities (including others in the Big Ten consortium) have weekly farmers markets where local farmers and producers come to sell their products. My undergraduate school, Vassar College, hosted weekly farmers markets selling an array of local fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, flour and honey in the student union building, even in the deep of winter. My regular interactions with farmers at this market not only taught me fun and simple ways to prepare new foods, but also allowed me to better understand plant genetic diversity and the local farming landscape. A farmers market at UNL can be an ideal opportunity for both nutritional and educational nourishment – especially if incorporated into course curricula and combined with programming such as cooking demonstrations.

(2) Encouraging urban agriculture: What better way to green the food desert than to engage in actual greening? While gardening takes time and commitment, it is a transformative activity that tackles the root of our cultural disconnect with food. In essence, it’s a “slow food” counter to our “fast food” culture. In my first year as a grad student, my friend and I joined one of the dozens of community gardens around Lincoln and grew our own delicious tomatoes, peppers, greens and herbs. Research shows that people who engage in gardening are more likely to eat what they grow, and thus have healthier diets overall. Sure enough, not only did my friend and I eat incredibly well, but we also got plenty of exercise and stress-relief from working in the garden. Perhaps even more rewarding, however, were the connections we strengthen with other gardeners and our friends by sharing our garden abundance (we were quite popular at potlucks). As a land grant university, UNL should actively support and create opportunities for students to grow their own food.

In a nation faced with a serious epidemic of obesity and diabetes, issues of food and diet are critical. If our goal is to develop truly healthy, vital communities, we cannot solely rely on infrastructural solutions. More supermarkets might erase physical food deserts by increasing food access, but they cannot change our unhealthy cultural behaviors. We need a constellation of solutions to build a healthier community food system. Let’s start by thinking outside of the (big) box.

Joana Chan, UNL School of Natural Resources

(reprint from: www.dailynebraskan.com)

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