Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fuel for food

In the US, where public transportation is less than adequate, people with access to a private vehicle have access to many more resources than those without. While studying people's perceived access to healthy food in Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, I started wondering if there were pockets of the city where people had less access to a vehicle. It turns out, as you can see in the map below, that this is definitely the case.

In terms of what this means with respect to people's access to healthy food, you have to first consider that in the US, this depends on your access to supermarkets. The map below shows that some neighborhoods have very few households with access to vehicles; some of these are also far from supermarkets in the city. These include the historic African American neighborhoods: The Hill District and Homewood.

About 30% of the households in Lincoln-Lemington don't have access to a vehicle. There are people there who can't afford to spend on travel to the supermarket, which lies more than 2 miles away, more than once a month. Fresh produce seldom lasts for a month. When they're low on money, they go to the neighborhood corner store, where little fresh produce is available; what is, is much more expensive than at the supermarket. More often than not, people end up eating a cheap, high-calorie diet because that's all they can afford.

The FAO and the UN endorse people's right to food, defining it as: "Right to adequate food is a human right, inherent in all people, to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective fulfilling and dignified life free of fear." (Emphasis added)

The discourse here in the US, is quite different: it is often taken as a given that affordable, fresh produce is not available in neighborhoods perceived to be economically poor because, "It's just economics." It's heartening that the Pennsylvania House made available grants through The Fresh Food Financing Initiative to ensure that the market answers the rights of the people. The City of Pittsburgh is also footing a large portion of the bill to finally bring a supermarket to the Hill.

When people lack access to healthy food because they can't afford the travel to a supermarket, we need think of imaginative ways to bring fresh food to the people at affordable prices. And it turns out the market is not always the only answer.

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