Former First Lady Michelle Obama cultivated a movement to increase access to the high-quality, nutrient-dense food necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One of her more innovative ideas was the White House Vegetable Garden, an educational resource to help kids learn about outdoor activities and sustainable living. The project resonated with millions of parents across the country who knew that their child would enjoy spending time in the sun, pulling roots up and collecting misshapen vegetables.
But this notion of promoting healthy eating through gardening and cooking can ignore the needs of a large segment of the population. Food inequality is a systemic issue with much deeper roots than this movement acknowledges. The solution isn’t as simple as just knowing where your carrot comes from; it’s the understanding of how U.S. history has shaped political, social and economic conditions for many people.
Practices like gardening and cooking are usually seen as hobbies, generally only realistic for middle- and upper-class individuals. These people generally work 9-to-5 jobs that allow them to have time off and enjoy whatever it is they want to do, such as gardening and cooking. This leisure time may not be as accessible to those who work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet; even if someone wanted to take the time out of their day to grow a carrot, would they have enough time left after tending to their other, more urgent needs? Even if they bought the carrot, would they have the time to cook it perfectly so as to extract the maximum amount of nutrition and flavor from it, as the movement for healthy cooking expects them to do?
This is partly why processed foods that do not require an excessive cooking time are popular. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any quick and healthy recipes out there, but the process of making food is more time-consuming than buying prepackaged foods. Shopping for the ingredients to make homemade meals is exhausting, not to mention a financial burden. Working a second or third job can take a mental and physical toll on an individual — their goal is to put food on the table, not to spend extra time perfecting the task. This is often what causes families to buy processed foods that have higher amounts of salt, fat and sugar.
These are the real nuances of food injustice, and understanding them is crucial to solving the food inequality crisis. U.S. policymakers must start by raising awareness at the grassroots level and work from there to reconstruct the unjust systemic barriers that contribute to food injustice. While gardening and cooking can be supplements to encourage healthy eating habits, they are not enough to fight food insecurity, especially if policy makers don’t make food more accessible to those most in need. Even still, a more comprehensive solution than homegrown food is necessary to truly combat this injustice.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 print edition. Email Gabby Lozano at [email protected]