OAKLAND, Calif. — A dozen recently and currently incarcerated women gathered in a classroom across the street from their San Francisco jail and considered a bulb of fennel. Crowded around a few small tables, the students peppered their teacher, Vera Pittman, with questions.
“Is that a vegetable?”
“Do we have to eat the hair?”
“It’s fronds, not hair,” said Pittman, walking the fennel to each table so everyone could inhale its licorice-like smell.
The fennel 101 lesson was part of a cooking class called Soul Food, a program started by a local chef and aimed at teaching low-income women how to cook and eat fresh and local foods. Many women in the class are from the Bay Area’s poorest neighborhoods, places where people suffer more often from illnesses that better diets may delay or prevent, including high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They will die, on average, years earlier than wealthier Americans.
Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people. These programs have earned the support of politicians and the first lady, who’s made fresh food initiatives a cornerstone of her campaign against childhood obesity.
It’s easy to understand why Michelle Obama and other influential figures have promoted fresh food initiatives: Bringing a bounty of fresh produce to impoverished “food deserts” is a lovely idea. But the idea isn’t borne out by evidence. Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.
British politicians introduced the idea of food deserts in the mid-1990s, adopting the term after a few preliminary studies suggested a link might exist between distance to a grocery store and the diets of poor people. The idea had caught on in the U.S. by 2004, when Pennsylvania passed a Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which offered grants and loans to supermarkets willing to open in distressed neighborhoods and helped smaller stores expand their supplies of fresh food. Twenty-two states now have some version of fresh-food financing and there are countless local and nonprofit programs, including cooking and nutrition classes (like Soul Food) designed to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the lives of poor people.