Breaking the Social Norm

Written By:
Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
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According to a recent study, people who have lost their jobs in this tough economy are often depressed. That’s a no-brainer, but here’s something that isn’t: individuals that have several friends and family members who are also jobless are less likely to be depressed. Plus, they are often less gung-ho about finding a new job. Why? It’s the social norm; there is no incentive for change.

Living the status quo, no matter how tough it is, doesn’t feel so bad if misery has company.  In sum, few people are inspired to reach above the bar if everyone else is below it.
I bet this theory applies to healthy living, too.
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Location Is Everything
The social eating norm in some areas of the country is best described by the fairly new term, “food desert.” The idea is that people living in these often low-income areas of the country have little access to fresh, healthy foods.

If you’re living in a food desert, your choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner are pretty sad: whatever is sold at the local corner store (which often has limited choices for expensive fruits and veggies) or at fast-food chains (some of which choose not to offer salad on the menu though they do nationally).  It doesn’t take long before the high-fat, high-calorie food takes a toll on the communities’ health in the form of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. This isn’t speculation. It’s a proven fact in food desert studies.

According to a Time Magazine article published this time last year, the situation is dire for thousands of people. A lack of grocery stores has left 633,000 Chicago residents (out of a total population of three million) miles from a conventional supermarket, for example (1). Few people have the time or energy to travel out of their way for groceries, especially those who rely on public transportation.

What gets me is that when we hear about food deserts, it’s by way of a new exposé or a campaign promise or a think tank studying the issue. We rarely hear from the people living in the desert that they are sick and tired of their food choices. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read stories about a few dedicated people traveling 10 miles to reach affordable produce. But there’s no organized effort from the inside-out to draw attention to this problem. It’s always from the outside in. Why? Because the social norm has not given them an impetus for change—but perhaps we can.

House Call
There are food deserts all around us. They’re in rural areas, cities and suburbs. Surely our industry can open its doors to those living there, who may not even realize they deserve better food options.
Just one of the remarkable things about this year’s WholeFoods Magazine Retailer of the Year is that they reached out to a community that many others wouldn’t have set foot in. The store, New Seasons Market, is based in the Portland, OR area, which has about 12–15 food deserts and about 10% of its one million people living below the poverty line (see p. 22).
Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
We may not all be able to open new stores in these areas, but we can start thinking about ways to reach out to those living in food deserts. Can you offer home delivery for prepaid orders? Can you help organize a small farmers’ market? Can you offer a monthly shuttle to your store? In short, can your store be a food oasis? WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

References
1.  S. Gray, “Can America’s Urban Food Deserts Bloom?” Time Magazine, May 26, 2009, www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1900947,00.html#ixzz0qBd2xIub, accessed June 7, 2010.
2. A. Sparks, N. Bania and L. Leete, “Finding Food Deserts: Methodology and Measurement of Food Access in Portland, Oregon,” Paper prepared for National Poverty Center/USDA Economic Research Service research conference “Understanding the Economic Concepts and Characteristics of Food Access,” Washington D.C., January 23, 2009.

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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2010