I work in education, and thus am well-versed in "The Education Gap." Trust me, it's there. But this is something we all hear about - in the news, in political battles, in movies. It's everywhere. Anyone denying its existence is simply ignoring truth - but they certainly aren't ignorant of it.
But there's something that has been on my heart lately that is much less publicized. I'm a wannabe nutrition/health fanatic. I am a far cry from it - trust me I LOVE McDonalds hot fudge sundaes - but I try. And for the most part, if I am eating something that's not good for me, I'm aware of all of the reasons it isn't. In general, I'm quite annoyed with the way that "low fat" and "low sugar" are marketed as "healthy," but that's another blog for another day. Just trust me when I say, even if I don't ALWAYS practice what I preach, I know when I'm not, and I avoid it.
Which is what brings me here.
My job brings me to different neighborhoods with vastly different populations. My company works with both charter schools and private schools. All of my private schools are in affluent neighborhoods - Upper East and Upper West Sides, Riverdale, and the Financial District being the most common. The vast majority of my charter schools are in low-income neighborhoods spread throughout the city. I filled out testing forms for a school in Hunts Point the other day for which I had to check "Free or reduced lunch" on every single form.
When I am leaving for work and headed to a private school, I don't bother packing a lunch. Why? because I know they're going to feed me. Not only are they going to feed me, but I will have a vast array of options to fit whatever nutritional needs I may have. Typically there is a meat entree and a veggie entree to choose from (except on Vegetarian Tuesdays at the Bank Street School). There is also at least one vegetable side (oh man, they day they had the steamed kale...), a full salad bar (with a vast array of fresh, colorful vegetables as well as various dressings, oils, and vinegars), and usually some choice of soup. Some schools also have fruit bars, bread bars - with various types of rolls, baguettes, etch, sandwich bars - incase you'd rather PB&J, and often a choice of yogurts (this is how I got hooked on Fage).
Typically, whatever options presented to the teachers are also presented to the students. The exception to this often lies in the pre-school grades - in which the kids usually bring their own lunch. I can't help but to observe the lunches when they break them out - chopped vegetables (including bell peppers! - I've seen 3 year olds scarf down bites of raw bell pepper), Annie's Homegrown snacks, fruits, gourmet peanut butter and jelly, meatballs, etc. Far cry from the Bunny bread pb&j and bag of Funyons I brought to school as a child.
If I choose not to eat the school lunch (which NEVER happens because the school lunches are AMAZING), I am USUALLY in a place where I can walk outside and have a vast array of gourmet grocery stores from which I can buy a nutritious lunch (with the exception of Riverdale - simply because my schools there are smack dab in the middle of lots of very expensive houses with beautiful gardens - and everyone drives to the grocery).
So, where am I going with this?
The days I am in charter schools I have DRAMATICALLY different experiences. If I don't have a pack a lunch, finding lunch STRESSES ME OUT. So much. These schools are in neighborhoods with extremely limited options - usually just fast-food or deli sandwiches. If I go to the grocery store, my "healthy" options are typically overpriced - I don't buy groceries in my OWN neighborhood for the same reason (I live in a fairly low-income neighborhood). Tell me why my oat bread with no added preservatives cost me five bucks for a loaf yesterday when I can get a better option at Whole Foods for three?? (and WF gets such a bad wrap for its prices...) Honestly, I had to settle for a not-so-great bread because my options were limited and I just needed to buy a loaf without having to get back on the train.
Often in these neighborhoods, my "healthiest" option is Subway (including the one in the first floor of my building). For all of their marketing to convince me otherwise, you cannot tell me their mass-produced bread and cold-cuts from little factory baggies are good for me - and I still feel gross after which must say something. I usually have them put less meat more spinach if anything.
My point is, people typically function within the environment they're presented. I'm following a study called Orleans Parish Place Matters that looks at just that idea in New Orleans. OPPM focuses more on the way crime and education affect health, but dabbles in the nutrition aspect. My observations of NY typically back up my idea that, along with the education gap, it's the NUTRITION gap that is also keeping our classes separate. If I am a CONSCIOUS eater and I struggle to find nutritious food without additives in these neighborhoods, imagine what it's like for people that aren't as aware of what's put in their bodies. They're going to eat what's available to them - and that's SOLELY what they will eat. And they will think they're eating "healthy" when they're eating things labeled and marketed as such - including diet soft drinks, "low fat" cookies, etc. All things that ARE NOT healthy.
There ARE some fruit stands on the streets - and I'm all about street fruit vendors. NYC is big on this as a part of its public health initiatives, but still, these fruits are usually from pesticide ridden fields in California. It's better than nothing, I guess, but in the long run this could be a problem. The NYC greenmarkets - with local and organically produced products, DO appear in some low-income areas, but the options are typically very limited.
Bloomberg tries to bring forward public health initiatives, but I'm not so sure he has actual advisors on this - because most of the things he does don't actually solve anything. He did eliminate junk food from school vending machines - something I'm grateful for - but many of the remaining options are still not great. And that's just one small thing. School lunches need serious overhaul. Many states are implementing farm-school connections that have proven to make huge difference in the nutrition level and behavior of students. As a friend pointed out - when you've eaten something that makes you feel cranky, you can typically link it back to the fact that you ate that food - but a child is simply going to be cranky and irritable and not be able to articulate or understand why. Change diet, change behaviors - not to mention the links between foods and brain development.
I am taking way longer to write this and articulate my point than I originally planned - but seriously, it's an issue. If I have plenty of friends who have access to quality food and are exposed to educational material yet still don't know the right choices to make much of the time, imagine how it is when you DONT have access to the food or the information.
As someone who eats healthy MOST of the time, I can attest that eating healthy can be VERY expensive, but it doesn't have to be. I have learned to stretch my dollar at Whole Foods, farmers markets, Trader Joes, etc. in order to make it work - but I also have to TRAVEL out of my own neighborhood to access most of it. This is a pain. And I can imagine if I had kids to tend to, I'd never travel for food. I had to drag myself onto the train to grocery shop this weekend (and hey, you just never know when a random drunk stranger is going to throw up into your grocery bag on the train.... yes, that happened). I ABSOLUTELY think access to healthy food is a class issue - and I think that's unfair. I don't know what I can do about it, but I try to educate as many people as possible about the importance of eating healthy - and continue to educate myself because I'm ALWAYS learning something new about it.
****Disclaimer - I said I shop at Whole Foods multiple times, but I do recognize that WF does not equal "healthy" all the time. I still ingredient hunt, check for nutritional value, etc. I am just more certain that my foods are going to lack many of the additives I try to avoid if I shop there.****