The food divide - Page 2

San Francisco is a city of haves and have-nots when it comes to nutrition

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Antonia Williams (from left), Jazz Vassar and Kenny Hill uproot a fresh crop of leeks at Bridgeview Community Gardens
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER D. COOK

These may sound like small steps, but they're part of a larger effort to get healthier food in Bayview, where chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are rampant. "I think a lot of people just don't know the link between the food we are eating and these chronic diseases," says Williams.

The Bayview is among the city's most food-deprived districts, with just 63 percent of residents living within a half-mile of a supermarket (in Excelsior, it's 57 percent), compared with 84 percent citywide. That ratio improved somewhat with the arrival this August of Fresh & Easy supermarket on Third Street, but access to fresh produce remains limited — a situation that numerous studies show contributes greatly to chronic undernourishment and disease.

Indeed, statistics show Bayview area residents suffer by far the city's "highest rates of everything negative," as former district supervisor Sophie Maxwell puts it: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Ironically, the Bayview's Third Street is home to the city's bustling produce warehouses, which rattle early every morning with trucks and crates full of fruits and vegetable, "but you have to go out of the district to get it," says Maxwell, who helped spearhead a Food Security Task Force while in office. "I was very much aware of [the food access problem] because of what I had to do to get food myself."

Much of Third Street remains a boulevard of liquor stores and fried and fast food. According to Tia Shimada of California Food Policy Advocates, "A lot of what we see instead of food deserts is food swamps, where the amount of healthy nutritious food available is overwhelmed by all the fast food and junk food."

Despite a seemingly diverse landscape of food businesses, "There's a saturation in neighborhoods with unhealthy choices," SEFA's Tracey Patterson argues. "When the cheapest choice in front of you is fatty comfort food and fast food, that's what you get accustomed to eating. The easier options quickly become habit."

Kenny Hill, a 23-year-old food guardian and Bayview resident, puts it like this: "What we have in our community, that's what we eat." But he says history and culture play a role, too. "We need to change the culture of what's considered good...Growing up eating salad, people would say, 'Why are you eating that? That's white people's food.'"

In other words, it takes more than getting a grocery store—which itself involved a nearly 20-year struggle for Bayview residents and leaders. "Food access is just one part of the issue. Even if you get a grocery store, that doesn't solve the problem," says Patterson, whose group, SEFA, espouses "three pillars" to fix the area's food problems: more grocery stores; education and health literacy; and expanded urban agriculture. "None on their own is enough."

 

HUNGER CROSSES LINES

Getting a job isn't enough either, statistics show. A recent study by the USDA cited by the Food Security Task Force shows that 70 percent of families nationwide with "food insecure" children have at least one member working full-time. And in San Francisco, the task force found, "39 percent of the households that receive weekly groceries through the SF Food Bank include at least one working adult. Only 18 percent of clients are homeless."

At least by federal definitions of poverty, food insecurity isn't just for poor people anymore — particularly in San Francisco, where exorbitant housing and other costs compound people's struggles to meet their food needs. "If you just look at the poverty level, you're missing a lot of people who are struggling to make ends meet," says Colleen Rivecca, advocacy coordinator with St. Anthony's Foundation. "Hunger and health and housing are so interconnected."

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