Fighting Hunger in North Philly: Explore Nutrition & The Fresh Grocer

On a cold winter morning in North Philadelphia a parade of young students, seven to fifteen years of age, march down Olney Ave on their way to school. Carrying book bags and wearing bulky winter jackets, their hands are buried in $.50 bags of potato chips and the cold light of the early morning sun reflects off the plastic packages of candy and sticky buns crinkling beneath their mittens. They are eating their most important meal of the day, a meal meant to replenish their growing bodies, nourish their minds, and prepare the young students for a rigorous, energy-draining day of learning. They are eating their breakfast.

Unfortunately, this image is repeated in many low-income, urban neighborhoods throughout America as a vast amount of people cannot afford to buy healthy food. Stemming from government subsidization of three major crops: corn, wheat, and soy, the mass production of cheap junk food and the subsequent obesity epidemic and decline in the health of Americans hits residents of low-income neighborhoods disproportionately to more food-secure people.

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As junk food provides a lot of calories for little money, and affordable, fresh produce becomes increasingly difficult to find in food deserts, low-income individuals and families continue to see a decline in health and general well being. Dr. Julie Anne Henstenburg, a professor and director of La Salle University’s nutrition program claims that this lack of healthy food for low-income individuals has “a direct impact on human potential.”

So what is being done to correct this trend? How can the students described above get the nutrition they desperately need to have long happy lives and make a positive impact on society? La Salle University is exploring this complicated question with their program Explore Nutrition. Headed by La Salle’s special projects coordinator, Tom Wingert, the Explore Nutrition program is a partnership between La Salle, the neighborhood grocery store, Fresh Grocer, and an array of community institutions including churches and food pantries, and its mission is to improve the nutritional health of La Salle’s neighborhood.

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The Fresh Grocer has had a particularly large impact on the nutritional landscape of La Salle’s neighborhood. Thehe area marked in the picture above indicates Olney, the North Philadelphia neighborhood where La Salle is located. Before the 2009 construction of the the Fresh Grocer, this neighborhood was considered a food desert. Defined as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up a healthy diet” by the Center for Disease Control, people who live in food deserts are at a higher risk for health related disease.

It is a part of the Fresh Grocer’s mission to combat this problem and they are doing so by purposefully opening stores in less profitable neighborhoods as well as developing new ways to help the nutritionally lacking community. “There’s a lot of community outreach with the local politicians and church leaders,” said Assistant store manager Natale Cariela, and this outreach helps to mitigate the impacts of food deserts on community health. “We have our Community Outreach Committee which meets once a month and put forth plans for different ways we can reach out.”

Volunteer work is another aspect of Fresh Grocer’s community outreach program. “All of our stores go and volunteer at Philabundance to pack up food,” said Cariela. But it is the grocery store’s involvement in the Explore Nutrition program’s Easter Food Drive that demonstrates its commitment to providing fresh produce for the community. The food drive involved the donation, organization, and distribution of a variety of fresh produce to fifteen different churches and food banks around the Philadelphia area. Fresh Grocer played a major role in the food drive, donating 3600 pounds of fresh sweet potatoes, carrots, and greens while also providing a place for La Salle volunteers to store and sort through the food.

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Though many grocery stores donate their time and food to food drives, what is unique about the Fresh Grocer’s involvement is their donation of fresh, healthy produce as opposed to the canned goods and non-perishables normally seen lining the shelves of food pantries. In this way, the Fresh Grocer is addressing more than just the issue of hunger, but they are tackling malnutrition head on and in turn, helping the children of the neighborhood get the nutrition they need to live healthy, prosperous lives.

Watch the video version of this story produced by Alyssa Wynne, Ashley Kuhn, and myself.

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Easter Food Drive Slide Show

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Starving for Attention: “A Place at the Table” Gives Voice to America’s Hungry

From the snow-capped peaks of Colorado, to the swamplands of the Mississppi Delta, and on to the cracked and graffitied sidewalks of North Philadelphia, A Place at the Table travels across America, juxtaposing beautiful, cinematic landscapes with individuals struggling with poverty and a lack of healthy food. In doing so, the documentary exposes the flawed agricultural policies that have lead to starvation in the wealthiest and most food-abundent nation on the planet.

Made by the same people who did Food Inc, A Place at the Table focuses less on the industrial nature of America’s food system, and more on the startling and paradoxical results of this system: starving, obese people. But how can one of the fattest nations on earth be one of the hungriest?  The main reason which the documentary cites is the lack of inexpensive, fresh produce that is a result of America’s defective food policy.

The American government gives billions of dollars to big farms that grow a lot of corn and soy, two easily manipulated cash crops that result in the wide array of cheap processed foods lining the aisles of every grocery and corner store in America. Small, family owned farms growing organic fruits and vegitables recieve no government funding, resulting in expensive and hard to find fresh, healthy produce. As the documentary explains, 50.1 million Americans are now food insecure, a new term referring to those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, and when you are food insecure and have three dollars to spend on groceries, you are going to put those three dollars towards the cheapest, most calorie-dense foods. This lack of funding for natural produce has resulted in poorer individual’s reliance on junk food for sustenance, a trend that is leading to one of the unhealthiest generations of children our nation has ever seen.

Not only are fruits and vegitables expensive, but America’s current agricultural model has turned many parts of rural and urban America into food deserts, places without access to fresh, healthy produce. People living in food deserts have higher rates of obesity related diseases and greater instances of food insecurity than those living within close distance of a super market, trends resulting directly from a lack of access to fruits and vegitables.

One of the hardest parts of the film to accept was its discussion of the school lunch program. The movie states that we currently spend only five cents per child on school lunches, a price that obviously results in nutritionaly inadaquate meals. That congress cannot find a good enough reason to invest in the health of America’s children is disheartening to say the least, and if the notion that a country is only as strong as its children is true, then America should start preparing itself for its long descent down the ladder of major world powers.

So the next time you tell a child to eat their broccoli, do not remind them of the starving children in Africa. Instead, point out their friend next door whose having Ramen and Doritos for dinner and tell them to watch A Place at the Table.

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On the Street Interviews

I recently conducted a few on the street interviews with residents of North Philadelphia. I asked Kieran, Eric, and Tina, of 20th Street, Chew Street and Germantown Ave respectively, where they went grocery shopping on a regular basis and how they think those stores could improve to better fit the needs of the neighborhood. Enjoy!

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The Lean Mean Money-Grabbing Machine: Why the Diet Industry Wants to Keep You Fat

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The word ‘diet’ derives from the Latin word diaeta, meaning “way of life.” Yet when you ask a modern day American what the D-word means, they look at you with dessert-deprived eyes and say things like “torture” and “hell.” So when and why did the definition of this ancient and seemingly innocent sounding word get so muddled? Is there a connection between increasing obesity rates and the growing number of new diets being marketed toward us Americans?

Despite the fact that new, ever more restrictive diets have been advertised at Americans every year since around the late 1970’s, and despite the explosion in health and nutrition-related science, Americans have not gotten any thinner or, more importantly, healthier. So why haven’t the most recent fads in dieting (Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Sensa, Gluten Free, Carb Free, low-fat) helped shrink America’s waistline? Here is a link to a blog written by Dr. Mark Hyman, a health advocate who speaks out against the diet industry and their marketing techniques, which, ironically, he argues are intended to keep America unhealthy. For more evidence of the diet industry’s less than outstanding track record in helping American’s keep the weight off, check out Shape Your Culture!

In my pretty well informed (yet still humble!) opinion, healthy eating does not need to be a science. I would argue, as would the bloggers listed above, that the diet industry has fostered a sort of food anxiety in Americans, a sense of nervousness that keeps us forever at the whims of the so-called nutrition “experts” and the latest MDs trying to make a quick buck. This anxiety has lead us to make terrible decisions, like paying more attention to carb and fat contents of foods rather than the all-more important ingredient list. Would you rather eat three-ingredient butter? Or its 27-ingredient, chemically altered cousin, margarine (only a few chemicals short of being plastic, by the way)?

So how should we eat? Whose advice should we take? Though every person is different, Michael Pollan, food philosopher and healthy food advocate, provides a list of creative yet simple rules for eating on his website. Most of these rules are passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents, and, unlike the diet fads of today, are timeless and will lead to a life of health and happiness.

I think it is about time we return to the Latin meaning of the word diet. Eating healthy shouldn’t be a chore or something that leaves you miserable and hungry. It should be a habit, a hobby, a celebration of friends and family…a way of life, if you will.

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Urban Food

For our first assignment, Professor Beatty had us head out into the neighborhood surrounding La Salle. With only a camera and a keen sense of observation, we had to take pictures of anything having to do with the phrase ‘urban food’. Below, you will find my interpretation of this concept.

 

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This picture was taken with a Nikon Coolpix digital camera. In the photo is New China, located on the corner of Olney and Ogontz. New China is a corner store type food place selling “Chinese and American Food,” among other miscellaneous grocery store items like single rolls of toilet paper, candy, chips, soda, and cleaning supplies. Any La Salle student who has felt hunger pains at two in the morning should be familiar with New China and their Asian-North Philly fusion cuisine. Favorite dishes include Seseme Chicken, Popcorn Chicken, Pizza Rolls, Cheesesteak Rolls, and the world famous General Tso’s Chicken. I took this photo around 3:00 on a tuesday afternoon, so the tiny shop was packed with La Salle students and Central High School students alike. 3240 x 4320 pixels

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Any La Salle student exiting the main campus through the front gates will be familiar with this mobile, steel-plated grease trap known as the Lunch Truck. The heavenly aroma that emenates from this tiny frialator on wheels is one of the first smells that greets new students, and alumni can still recall that first bite of a $2.50 breakfast hoagie after an 8am class.  Arguably two of the hardest working people on La Salle’s campus, a husband and wife team, arrive at La Salle every weekday morning just as the sun pokes above Broad Street, and leave as night begins to settle in. In their tiny kitchen on wheels, the duo sells Philly classics like scapple, cheesesteaks, pretzels, and more all at college wallet-friendly prices. 3240 x 4320 pixels

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I took this photo at the apartments on the corner of Ogontz, 18th, and Broad streets, across from Central High School. Whatever Steve’s Cafe was, one must assume Steve has fallen into some hard times. Boarded in by graffitied steel grates, one imagines a rusting kitchen traversed by scuttling cockroaches and tipped over dining room chairs and tables draped with cobwebs. Aside from a couple of students waiting for SEPTA, there was little going on out front of the cafe. 3240 x 4320 pixels

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This photo of Hershey’s Grocery located on the corner of 19th and Chew. It was hard to tell is the store was opened or closed, although the unrepaired sign seems to be a hint. 3240 x 4320 pixels

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