I typically do most of my shopping at a discount grocery chain downtown and then stop at my neighborhood store for the few items they don’t carry. This practice is rewarding for two reasons. First, I usually save quite a bit on groceries and second, I’ve found it interesting to observe the food choices made by a variety of families. We always hear about food deserts and unavailability or the high expense of healthy food choices, which inevitably affect the growth and development of young children. My informal research has definitely been eye-opening.
I wondered if today was any different from a few decades ago, when we were a young family living in Chicago with limited resources. My husband was finishing grad school. We were both working part time and had three small children. We had a tight budget, to say the least. I remember a friend and I trading ideas for dividing a small beef roast or pound of ground beef to make several meals. I only had so much money to spend on my weekly grocery trip, but my first stop was always for fresh produce, dairy, and meat. I rarely bought canned goods and never any soda, candy, or snacks. I baked, gardened, froze, and preserved. My children learned to do these things, because we did them together.
Yesterday, as I waited to check out at the discount store, I noticed the family in front of me. Both mom and dad were obese and probably not older than 24 or 25. The two young preschool children in the cart seat were well on their way to following that path. They were munching on an opened bag of double-stuffed, generic sandwich cookies and shared a can of red soda.
The grocery cart was filled to capacity. I watched as the items were taken out and placed on the conveyer and made a mental note of what I didn’t see… No fresh produce, even though the prices for these items were ridiculously reasonable (bananas were 18 cents a pound). No fresh meat (ground chuck was $1.59 a pound). No dairy products… not even milk, which was 88 cents a gallon.
I did see canned pasta (at least two dozen cans), numerous packages of cookies, snack cakes, chips, canned cheese, generic sugary cereal, lots of frozen pizzas, popsicles, hot dogs, frosted donuts, white bread, and several cases of soda.
Finally, the grocery bill was totaled up. $133.00.
I thought about how many nutritious, healthy meals could be had for $133.00, especially if there was a little planning involved. As a young mother, I would have surely appreciated having $133.00, instead of probably half that much.
This neighborhood is not a food desert. There are at least 4 other stores in close proximity that have plenty of fresh foods at very reasonable prices. There is also a wonderful farmer’s market held in this neighborhood every Saturday.
So, if it isn’t a lack of food availability, that leaves culture… a culture that embraces convenience and heritage above all and will choose a meal out of a can or package to be eaten as-is or microwaved, a quick, sweet or salty snack in place of a meal, and a sugary beverage instead of milk or water.
These are choices made without thinking. They are choices that have been made for generations… passed down from childhood to childhood. And, a diet like this will take its toll on the health of those little children in the cart seat, just as it had for their parents and grandparents… with obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. In my mind, this is truly a form of child abuse.
So, what’s the answer? The demand is high for convenience foods, so they aren’t going away any time soon. The only place a child can escape these awful food choices is in school, beginning in child care or preschool. We can provide fresh, clean foods that are actually prepared and cooked. Schools can share simple recipes with families that their children enjoy at school. We can provide access to a community garden and send home fruit donated by area merchants.
Teachers can model the enjoyment of healthy eating and engage children in cooking activities that introduce them to foods that may be unfamiliar.
These are just some ideas I thought of as I made the decision to make this a service learning project for my students. I’m sure they will come up with many more and much better ideas. Our college is a centrally-located, urban institution serving a diverse demographic. Many of our students have or are experiencing struggle themselves. For others, this issue may be something they have never faced or considered. I am hoping the project will be cause for pause for them, as well… and they will carry their work forward into their own schools and programs and help to make a difference, one little group of children at a time.
One thing’s for sure. We can’t continue to be that shopper at the checkout, standing behind a young family that is making devastating choices and do nothing.