The Produce Delusion


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 Sometimes it seems like NYC government isn't sure what to do about food. There is a push towards a more paternalistic food policy, but it's rather laughable. For example, the "food desert" issue. Some time ago, food policy researchers started talking about "food deserts", places where it's almost impossible to get fresh fruits and vegetables without traveling a great distance. Some places in NYC were pegged as food deserts and the city had a few insipid initiatives to "help" the situation. One of them was fresh fruit and vegetable carts, called "green carts." They subsidized these carts, hoping to encourage them in these "food deserts." The problem was that savvy folks were more than happy to take the subsidy and set up in a gentrified area on the edge of a "food desert," such as Morningside Heights near Columbia University. They set up near upscale grocery stores, who were unhappy that the city was subsidizing their competition. In the meantime, I wonder how well those food policy experts who study food deserts looked into the grey market here. Get off a subway in East New York and you'll usually find several hawkers of fresh mango and other fruit. The problem is that these carts are illegal for some reason. So at the same time the city has been subsidizing Green Carts in areas where they weren't needed, they have been cracking down on some of these sidewalk vendors. The crackdown has unfortunately also happened in my neighborhood, which is economically mixed. The government says the produce might be unsafe because of car exhaust from the roads. I wonder if the government has ever heard of pesticides? The government has also been cracking down on people gathering wild berries, greens, and mushrooms from parks, a hobby of both immigrants and locavores. 

Either way, I think in urban areas like NYC, the idea that people are suffering from diabetes because they don't have fruit is delusional. Harlem is a diabetes hotspot and there is PLENTY of healthy fresh food in most of the same areas where diabetes, obesity, and heart disease is rampant. Every other store seems to have sidewalk displays of ample fresh produce, some very exotic

Display of fruits and vegetables in Hamilton Heights in Harlem, the restaurant next door is Dunkin Doughnuts

The problem here isn't lack of produce, the problem is that every other store that doesn't have produce seems to be a fried chicken joint or Dunkin doughnuts. People are so focused on the myth that produce is a magic bullet that they forget that plenty of unhealthy people eat fruits and vegetables. What's more important in making someone healthy? The inclusion of fresh produce or the exclusion of vegetable oil and sugar? Remember how much better the latter two taste anyway. In areas of the city with less of an immigrant population, efforts to get bodegas to sell fruits and vegetables have led to many bodegas having displays of rotting bananas and apples. If your store sells slurpies and apples, which one are the children going to pick? There is also the issue that in many immigrant communities vegetables might actually be a source of unhealthy eating, as they are frequently fried in the same way as in places like China, where produce consumption is connected with obesity. I find that in many immigrant communities there isn't much awareness about the health effects of using things like vegetable "ghee" or hydrogenated lard. Indeed, now that researchers are finally studying such immigrant communities, they are finding that access to produce doesn't have a connection with obesity. There have been some efforts in certain cities to limit the number of fast food restaurants, usually targeting chains, but a lot of restaurants serving fried sugary food are not chains, they are little mom and pops like the arepa stand in my neighborhood, where the well-meaning woman blissfully coats all her arepas with the cheapest margarine available. I have to wonder if she really knows that margarine isn't a good choice? The government certainly isn't about to tell her.