This specimen was hard, mealy, a diminished version of the one in my head. Cutting into it’s substance was a chore with the dull knife supplied to me. And my efforts yielded a morsel that barely smelled like an apple, and rapidly turned fuzzy and brown within seconds after succumbing to the oxidized air in the hotel.
I was staying at a prominent chain whose service was impeccable, rooms clean and comfortable, and served a generously abundant breakfast buffet. In typical American fashion this meant a make your own waffles station, fluffy Bisquick pancakes, “naturally flavored” breakfast cereals ladened with corn syrup and oil, eggs soaked in butter, yogurts filled with additives, white bread toast, pasteurized juices from concentrate, vats of coffee, and sugary muffins.
For us “health conscious” guests, there was oatmeal, bananas occasionally yellow but more often green, and apples so old I doubt anyone would have fed them to livestock. I actually heard one of the staff whisper “Look, someone’s taken an apple. I’ve never seen that.” I laughed to myself quietly but also sadly. What a poignant comment on how people eat in this country of mine.
Around me, my fellow travelers piled their plates high with provisions as though stocking up for the next apocalypse. Often starting with two plates of food, they quickly scarfed those down and returned to the buffet for seconds, and sometimes thirds. “Well it’s free honey, you better eat up!” Joked one elderly man as he waddled his way back to his table. “You look like you could use some meat on your bones!”
I glanced at my meager offerings and sighed. Usually I would eat more than this, but earlier this year, I realized one simple truth. Oatmeal is Satan’s spawn. It’s bland, looks like vomit, and just like when we say “speak of the devil” it always appears when you least want it to.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Maybe. I did however conclude that I dislike oatmeal. Intensely. Especially one that I sensed had been reheated a few times because no one else seemed to ever choose it. And as for the apple? Well, gross fruit is almost as bad as no food at all.
Or is it?
Arguably the comparison of bad food to no food is a bit of writer’s hyperbole. In truth, not liking the food in front of me is definitely a first world problem. But what happens when food is processed, sugared, bred for shape instead of taste, or stripped of all it’s nutrients? Is it even still food?
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. But as I drove across it this past week, I noticed that the desert I was driving out of when leaving Arizona, wasn’t the danger that concerned me. Sure it did get furiously hot, and being outside could result in physical issues. But the true crisis in this country is a desert of an entirely different kind. The food desert.
During my previous drive across this nation in 2015, I was heading in the opposite direction. As I drove solo from the East Coast to California, I don’t recall having this much trouble finding healthy, delicious, meal options. I was newly vegan, and rather strict about my eating because of digestive issues I had been having. Yet somehow, perhaps colored by the softening of nostalgia, or maybe I just didn’t notice as much, but real food seemed more readily available to me.
This time however, I didn't have such stringent restrictions. After seven years vegan, I reintroduced other foods into my meals last year. Yet just because I CAN eat everything does NOT mean I DO eat everything. Call me picky, but I give a damn about what I put into my body.
You know the cliche, garbage in, garbage out? We are nation that - despite our wealth and access to just about everything - is getting sicker every year. An NPR report in March of this year, commented on the documented fact that Americans - instead of rebounding mortality rates after Covid like other countries - is actually declining each year. And when they systematically tracked the source of the decline, eating unhealthily was a major cause. (*1)
And the problem isn’t simply the choices we make as individuals - although for many of us, that DOES play a huge role. A major contributor was also ACCESS to foods that support total well-being of our physical and mental systems:
“Yes, Americans eat more calories and lack universal access to health care. But there's also higher child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the way cities are designed makes access to good food more difficult.” (*1)
The gravity of this problem hit me as I witnessed a family in Tennessee “grocery shopping” in the local gas station. I was fascinated by the conversation as they carefully checked off their list. No produce in sight, some frozen foods, and large bottles of soda. I nearly cried seeing the boy - who couldn’t be more then 5 or 6 - ask his mom while clutching a 2 liter of Sprite “Momma, can I drink from the bottle again?” Later when I checked, the nearest grocery store was 12 miles away.
TWELVE MILES AWAY.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A food desert is typically identified in the United States as an area where a proper supermarket is 1 mile away in urban areas, or 10 miles away in rural areas. (*2) Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much to those of us with a car. However millions of Americans don’t have the luxury of owning a vehicle, nor do they have available public transportation as our country is NOT designed with that infrastructure. So you might as well place the access to groceries on Mars for all the good a supermarket miles away will do our citizens.
What IS usually available in these areas is fast food chains who offer “cheap affordable meals” to families. But there is nothing affordable or cheap in the consequences of eating these meals. Processed foods and fast foods are created with the trifecta of addictive ingredients. (Unhealthy) fats, sugars, and salts are combined to create foods that are habit-forming and linked to an increase of a variety of health issues such as high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, blindness, and more. (*3) Furthermore, such Franken-foods have been linked to memory issues, depression, anxiety, and even low libido or erectile dysfunction. (*4)
Food deserts and the companies that take advantage of these typically low income, often racially segregated, social isolated areas, are literally killing off our compatriots. So much for the “We Take Care of Our Own” that iconic American Bruce Springsteen has sung about. Because from what I see, as long as it’s not affecting our OWN groceries, we seem to be forgetting about those who can’t get any - even if they could afford it.
It’s a sobering thought. And it hit me rather hard as I attempted to eat my nearly inedible apple that morning at the hotel. Because here I was in a rather affluent scenario, still having issues getting something that resembled real sustenance. And I can hardly blame the hotel - who was wonderful in every other way - considering the people around me were gobbling up the goop, that we deign to call foods, as though it was going out of style.
Why would the hotel therefore, invest money in its food budget for fresh produce, when those who could afford it, aren’t clamoring for it. We are after all a consumer driven society. And money talks, which is why those who don’t have it, suffer the worst.
Now it is true I was driving across country and therefore ipso facto had a vehicle in which I could go to grocery stores and get fresh fare and provisions. And I did indeed do that, multiple times. But it’s scary to think that in some areas, the Envy apple I was reminiscing about at the beginning, is unimaginable to large populations in this very country.
I was reading up on solutions to this food desert problem, and perhaps I will touch on that further in a later blog post. Answers range from more food banks to increasing the Snap program, school breakfasts and lunches, to even community gardens. (*5) Yet as I read more and more, there was a huge double component missing - education about ,and exposure to, real foods.
Many of the responses to this problem offer donated foods which are highly processed and lacking in nutrients. Our school menus are essentially junk. And the SNAP program - while helping with the poverty portion of the problem, is still an issue because people will shop for what is familiar to them. So the question becomes: How do people know what real food is, and why it’s important, if they are never exposed to it?
I truly believe there is no such thing as a stupid question. But you have to know the questions to ask. You can’t possibly ask what you don’t know, that you don’t know. (Read that again and let it sink in.)
So if you have no basic understanding of what real food is, how it affects your body, what it tastes like in comparison to the fake stuff, or even that you don’t have access to the same selection as others in your national community, will you understand what you are missing? We put the burden of the problem on those who are not only most affected by it, but aren’t even fully aware of what is possible for them.
How do you like them apples? I’d say it’s a large bitter pill to swallow when faced with the reality of it.
I’m thankful that in general I know what real food is, and even at my worst points in my life, I was able to obtain what I needed to thrive. But gratitude alone doesn’t necessarily help others get what they need, and I can’t close my eyes now that I’ve seen the problem.
It’s not someone else’s concern, it’s OUR concern. Right in our own backyards. Our neighbors are suffering. And we are mocking the problem further when we disrespect our own bodies by feeding ourselves rubbish when we can do better.
Maybe the Bible is misleading in it’s depiction of Eve and the fabled apple. Instead of being the devilish damsel driving our demise, she might have actually been our first Savior. If you look at the story again thru the lens of the modern food desert, she wasn’t trying to lure Adam into a decadent temptation. She was practically shouting “Yo lunkhead, quit eating that crap and have some real food.” Because if our bodies are made in the image of the divine, then Eve is the true hero of the story telling us all to feed it with the care it deserves.
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Tink, world traveler, positivity muse, and adult entertainer, has also freelance written for a number of companies as their ghostwriter. Now talking directly to YOU on this platform, she is also writing two books at her community's request.