Debunking myths about central city eating habits
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When Young Kim moved to Milwaukee from Seattle in 2003 to take the executive directorship of the Fondy Food Center, 2200 W. Fond du Lac Ave., he knew little about urban eating habits. Kim qualified for the position because of his experience running another non-profit, but it was a furniture bank for people moving from a shelter to their own home, not a food-related venture.
The mission of the Fondy Food Center is to connect Greater Milwaukee to local, fresh food by supporting small-scale Wisconsin farmers as well as by offering cooking-based nutrition education and providing a farmers' market on the North Side of Milwaukee.
Kim is the first to admit when he started the job, he was under the impression his role was to teach people living in the central city how to have a better diet. However, shortly after his arrival, while preparing food at the food pantry, he quickly realized he had a lot to learn from the people waiting in line for a meal.
"A woman told me, 'you're chopping your onions all wrong.' This was not the feedback I was expecting," says Kim.
Since then, Kim has continued to listen to and learn from the people he thought he was going to "save" from poor nutrition and, along the way, has recognized the challenges of central city eating, along with a lot of myths.
Although there aren't many stores that sell fresh, affordable produce in the central city, Nancy Ketchman, the director of development and communications for Fondy, tested the corner stores in the neighborhoods numerous times.
"I tried to see how much fresh produce I could buy with $10. Half of the stores I tried were closed, another 1/4 of the stores had no or extremely limited produce, and the remaining 1/4 had mediocre-to-poor quality produce at high prices. What right-minded person would buy an already molding cantaloupe for $2 just to 'eat healthy?'" says Ketchman.
However, Ketchman believes that access to food with low nutritional value is not just a central city problem.
"Have you been to the local Target? Or the Walmart in small-town America? Obesity is not a 'central city / poor person' problem. Many, many people eat unhealthy food these days, including wealthy suburban parents who feed their kids Pop-Tarts in the morning or frozen pizzas for dinner. We all eat like that occasionally, so it's really disingenuous for people to specify 'central-city' residents as the primary culprit," she says.
Through research, Kim learned that even though people often equate obesity with poor people, the middle class is statistically almost as challenged by it.
"About 35 percent of lower-income people are obese, but 31 percent of the middle class are, too," he says. "And for the category of 'overweight,' which is just under 'obesity,' the middle class actually had a higher percentage. Obesity is everyone's problem, not just 'those lazy people eating all the wrong foods.'"
Kim also recognizes there is a shortage of decent grocery stores in the central city – and that corner stores are often unable to get fruit and vegetable distribution in small enough amounts that are realistic for their sales – but he sees a lot of residents striving to find a decent selection of produce despite their limitations.
"Often, people who are low income eat just as many fruits and veggies as middle-income people. Lower-income people find ways to get their hands on healthy food," says Kim.
For instance, Kim knows of a group of four women, none of whom own a car, but car pool regularly to grocery stores outside of their neighborhood. The women get a paper, figure out which grocery store is offering the best deals, borrow a car from someone and then pile in for a grocery run.
"There are all sorts of cooperative efforts happening," says Kim, a Korean-American who grew up in New Orleans.
Kim says another big mistake is presenting a guilt-laden approach to food. He has learned through his job and his involvement in the community that food is about joy, connection and history and that telling people what they "should" and "should not" eat doesn't work. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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