The Amazing Even Alarming Ease

Yesterday I stumbled across a story of an Obama Administration official who, complaining about the lack of availability of fresh produce in inner cities, the idea of a “food desert”, pointed to the president as an example of someone who’d lived in places where there was no fresh produce readily available and would have had to drive or take the subway if he’d wanted to buy fresh produce. I decided to investigate whether that were true, at least in Chicago.

Within twenty minutes I had identified every place Barack Obama had lived in Chicago and the nearby groceries. As it turns out, at least in Chicago, President Obama has never lived in a place where fresh produce was not readily available.

Now, just for the record, my view of the “food desert” issue is:

  1. The lack of availability of fresh produce in inner cities is greatly exaggerated.
  2. Food choices are governed more by preference and habit than they are by availability. Although, at least in the spring and summer, I could probably live off the stuff growing in nearby alleys, I still go to the grocery store for food. As long as we’ve been a species we’ve preferentially sought out the calorically densest food that was available. Nowadays fast foods and snack foods make that easier than ever and the calories they provide are denser than ever.
  3. What you eat, what you like to eat, and how you process different foods is governed by your genes and your experience. Education may help at the margins.

I might add that seventy years ago every large American city was ringed by farms and greenhouses that supplied fresh produce to the cities they adjoined. Where O’Hare Airport is now there used to be an apple orchard—its three letter designation code, ORD, is short for “Orchard”. That’s for Orchard Avenue, the road that went to the orchard. The reason we no longer have that availability is transportation policy and zoning. That’s a decision that was made a couple of generations ago.

I decided not to write the post I’d originally considered. Politicians exaggerate, make bad assumptions, and say dumb things. So what?

What truly struck me was the amazing even alarming ease with which I could gather such detailed information.

BTW, there’s a really charming organic grocery store about three blocks from the president’s current Chicago residence.

54 comments… add one
  • Drew

    As it turns out, at least in Chicago, President Obama has never lived in a place where fresh produce was not readily available.

    Yes, but do they stock boiled dog and grasshoppers?

    (I know, but somebody had to do it.)

  • To be honest I don’t think that either where Mitt Romney’s Gold Retriever traveled 30 years ago or what Barack Obama’s parents fed him 40 years ago is much of a story. I’m a lot more interested in what they each did and thought last year and what they’re doing and thinking now.

  • PD Shaw

    We generally get our fresh fruit from Sam’s Club, almost always in good condition and available in large quanties; we don’t like to be miserly with the kids eating fruit. Did Obama live near in any Super Walmart’s in Chicago?

  • Icepick

    I really don’t get the thing about Romney and his dog being much of a story. Hell, I remember dad driving me around as a small child eith me sitting on his lap and steering while he smoked with one hand and drank a beer with the other. My wife and her sister once took a trip from Virginia to Florida then to California in the bed of a pick-up truck on air mattresses. BFD with the dog already! Everyone I know 35 years ago used the kinds of safety standards only seen among Mexican farm workers these days.

    Hell fire, in most of the families I knew that dog would have had the best seat in the car. Almost all the parents I knew back then smoked like one of Drew’s old steel plants (and I mean the old ones from back in the day). The dog would have been the only one getting breathable air!

    Okay, I exaggerated a little bit about the stories about my wife and I as kids. The pick-up she travelled in had one of the camper tops on the back, and Dad would have never let me steer – he did that with his knees.

  • Icepick

    PD, I don’t much care for Sam’s bananas as they go bad very quickly. Not big on the bags of apples either. Otherwise they’re okay.

  • How many of these people don’t know how to cook? They came in and plopped in front of the television while mom or dad or grandma prepared a meal.

    The only thing Daddy could cook was breakfast. He wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with a carrot.

  • Did Obama live near in any Super Walmart’s in Chicago?

    Walmarts, generally, are pretty scarce within the city limits. You might recall that there was some controversy over opening one on the Southwest Side not too long ago—they frequently get union opposition (which takes the conversation in an entirely different direction). Recently I’ve seen a spate of Walmart Expresses (small stores, mostly grocery) all over the city. But those are pretty new.

    However, as well as I can determine nowhere he’s ever lived was more than a few blocks from a Jewel-Osco and there were typically small independent groceries that carried produce within a block or so of where he lived.

  • How many of these people don’t know how to cook?

    I think you’re getting to the heart of the problem, Janis. When “food” means “what’s served at McDonald’s” it doesn’t make much difference whether there’s a produce store in the vicinity.

    Since I’ve been cooking, roughly, since I could walk (I was making my own oatmeal at 5 or 6), I have no real feel for whether most people know how to cook or not. I’m guessing that most men of any age and most women under the age of, maybe, 50 barely know how to cook. I consider cooking, doing the laundry, and sewing on a button or ironing as survival skills, like swimming or balancing a checkbook.

  • I have tried to teach the boys that the two cheapest and easiest ways to raise one’s standard of living is to know how to cook and how to clean. The first is taking, the second, not so well.

  • … living are to know …

    More coffee.

  • I’m not surprised at that. It may just be my age talking but I think that women are innately cleaner than men. Or maybe it’s learned. I could give a developmental psychological argument for it but suffice it to say that’s been my experience.

    My mom used to say that it was because when women were dirty they really got dirty.

  • PD Shaw

    @icepick, my wife does the grocery shopping, so I can’t speak to the details, but she tells me that she needs to supplement her fruit purchases at Sam’s. Its probably the blueberries/raspberries, which the kids eat by the bowl. Mainly, though I was alluding to Chicago being hostile to Walmart’s.

  • Icepick

    No idea how to sew on a button. Don’t really want to know, but that is from childhood trauma best left unmentioned.

    As for ironing… I know how to iron by why in the names of allthe Gods people have worshipped before would I WANT to?

  • I don’t know what’s wrong with these boys. There’s no amount of dirt or disorganization that gets on their nerves.

  • PD Shaw

    My city appears to be going through a grocery rennaissance; I speculate that there currently are in existance or development two to three times as much grocery space as ten years ago. (I’m akwardly wording that to account for the fact that superstores like Target/Walmart have been adding grocery space) Two new ones were announced just yesterday, one in a poorer community so the city will be giving them tax money.

    The city population hasn’t really changed. So what’s up? My theories:

    1. The stores are projecting more people will eat at home in the future versus eating out.

    2. Unions destroyed. Twenty years ago, I believe all of the groceries were union-operated except one less-reputable chain. About ten years ago, the last Jewel was sold, the new owner fired every worker and made them reapply for their jobs in a non-union shop. Grievance filed and apparantly lost. No union grocery stories in the city now AFAIK, almost a complete reversal.

    3. These are really pharmacies with grocery stores to channel traffic. Its part of the anticipated growth of healthcare needs, not about food.

    Still, we have no Trader Joes.

  • How many people even like vegetables and fruit? My husband’s brother barely tolerates them. He much prefers meat and potatoes or rice. My husband loves them and so do the boys. That’s not a class problem.

  • PD Shaw

    @Janis, no its alway’s the mother’s fault. It does seem odd that two brothers would have such different reactions; I think the conventional wisdom is that kids need exposure to a lot of produce early and with at least some frequency to get the taste. But that seems to run against some of the vegetables that I like today that I don’t remember eating until an adult (or not in the same form. My mom hated spinach, but her idea of spinach was in a can, my idea is that its fresh)

  • PD Shaw

    I generallly cook three nights a week, and my wife the remaining four. I asked to help my mom in the kitchen as a teenager and thought it was fun to cook to the extent cooking was like chemistry or building a model (following directions; measuing things); if it required “feel” or intuitiveness (like baking) it had no appeal. I might have thought that the gender roles were shifting too. My younger sister can’t cook worth much; I think her engineer-hubby does most of it. Again, I don’t know if she had the sense that it had become less important for her to learn to cook as a teenager, but my mom and sister still needle each other about these kinds of things. I shut up.

  • Drew

    I guess it was too early in the morning for bald faced wisecracks….

  • My husband loves to cook and he’s good at it. We share cooking chores at most meals, but he does most of the shopping.

  • But this discussion has been going on since the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America back in the sixties, maybe before.

    Without actually getting on the ground and mapping the areas and interviewing the folks concerned, I don’t know how to interpret the articles.

    I read “inner cities” and don’t really know the areas they’re talking about. When I lived in Manhattan around 1980 I couldn’t walk six blocks in any direction without passing a greengrocer. I understand that’s changed with higher rents.

  • Cheap junk food was a slice of pizza or a couple of egg rolls.

  • michael reynolds

    There’s a definite difference in food quality by neighborhood. As most of you know, I move more frequently than a sane person should. One of the easiest, quickest ways for me to get a sense of what’s going on in a given area is to look at the grocery stores. Lousy produce = poor neighborhood. Minimal spices = also poor neighborhood. Do they have fresh basil? No? Then it’s a poor neighborhood.

    There can be misleading indicators. For example, our full-service grocery is a lousy Safeway. But it’s lousy because Safeway has a monopoly on full-scale groceries in this area.

    My local grocery, Woodlands, is a classic example of a ‘tell.’ Great butcher, excellent seafood, a large array of one-serving meals at $8 – $9 each, tons of wine, beautiful produce. Relatively little soda, almost no mass-market beer. And this above all: six different varieties of prune when last I checked. All of which equals wealthy older people and a fair number of weekenders.

    If you look at Jewel-Oscos you’ll find wide differences between stores. I guarantee you the Jewel-Osco in a place like Wilmette stocks very differently than the ones in poor neighborhoods. Lousy produce will be one of the indicators.

  • Study challenges the food desert assertion.

    But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

    The only thing Daddy could cook was breakfast. He wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with a carrot.

    Skin it, chop it up, and add it to the curry chicken with coconut milk (with potatoes, red onions, green onions, cilantro, and even some edamame). Serve with jasmine rice and a Newcastle beer.

    Or….skin it, chop it up and mix it with celery, peas, sweet onions and mushrooms, add in some ground beef or ground lamb, and then spread the mixture in a casserole dish and cover with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and back till the mashed potatoes turn a nice brown on top. Serve with a Newcastle beer.

    Samuel Smiths nut brown ale also works.

  • bake, not back…typing too damn fast.

  • Groceries have to stock by demand. Is the produce poor because it was chosen poorly, or is it lousy because it doesn’t sell?

    Our local grocer has picked up variety, in part, I think, because of the Food Network.

  • PD Shaw

    Janis, I’m a little confused by the “inner cities” as well. If you’re concerned about people having to drive or take the subway to get groceries, you do seem to be operating from the assumption that every place should be Manhatten (or Paris). If you’re not shopping for groceries with a car isn’t that its own limitation on what you can/will buy? Or is the expectation that people buy groceries to prepare a meal later that day?

  • Steve, a mile and a half is a pretty good distance to tote groceries without public transportation or a car. That’s about how far it is to our local.

    Or you can cut the carrots lengthwise and toss them in a bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil, a little salt and pepper, spread them on a baking pan and roast them in a 400 degree oven until they’re as tender as you like.

  • It may just be my age talking but I think that women are innately cleaner than men.

    Really? I’m thinking it is your age.

    A couple of months on my son’s current swim team there was a team meeting. The coach near the end said something to the effect, “And the bathrooms. (At this point I was sure he’d mention the boys bathroom) I go into the boys bathroom and its clean. But when I go into the girls bathroom…for the love of God. (The coach, a man also works at the club that hosts the team and maintains the pool area)”

    My wife has echoed similar statements from other bathrooms as well.

    I was making my own oatmeal at 5 or 6

    Oatmeal does not constitute food and preparing does not count as cooking. Just saying.

  • Steve, a mile and a half is a pretty good distance to tote groceries without public transportation or a car.

    Okay, I’m perplexed here….this, if it is the case, should be seen as an unmitigated good thing for people worried about food deserts and obesity.

    And in many of these areas there are public transportation systems. If anything more than in the suburban areas.

    And finally, a consideration few have probably thought about….perhaps being obese is the preferred outcome for these people.

    Just saying…..

  • michael reynolds

    Groceries have to stock by demand. Is the produce poor because it was chosen poorly, or is it lousy because it doesn’t sell?

    Are they competing with a Whole Foods? Then they have to elevate their game. They dump the worst stuff in the inner city and in poor neighborhoods, they send the good stuff to the expensive neighborhoods where they’re hoping to be just good enough to keep us from making the extra trip to Whole Foods.

    Poorer working people are often on buses, often schlepping, often working odd hours so they’ll be pushed toward whatever is close by, whatever is on the bus route, whatever is open at all hours. None of that allows them to comparison shop between multiple stores, so they take what they can get. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks if you go to a Jewel-Osco in a poor Chicago neighborhood you’ll find lower quality produce, more expired foods on the shelves, meat and milk with less time to run before expiration, etc…

  • I’ll bet you a hundred bucks if you go to a Jewel-Osco in a poor Chicago neighborhood you’ll find lower quality produce, more expired foods on the shelves, meat and milk with less time to run before expiration, etc.

    No argument. But I see a big difference between “lower quality” and none which is what the “food desert” claim is about. One of the things I noticed when I was doing my research was that there were two Jewels within a couple of blocks of one of the places where Barack Obama had lived and they had user ratings (which amplifies the basic point of this post). One was rated had a poor user rating, the other had an okay user rating.

    Other than it’s good to be rich I don’t know what the actionable is on this. Mandating that all stores carry radicchio? Government-run stores? Free distribution of produce?

    I seem to recall that something like that last one was tried and flopped from lack of interest.

  • PD Shaw

    I do plan on testing michael’s hypothesis. Schnuck’s, what I would consider a slightly high-end super-market chain based in St. Louis, has announced that its building two stores in my city, one in a nice neighborhood next to a popular private school, and the other next to the poorest neighborhoods in the city, thanks to some tax give-aways. When these get built I want to compare them, are the prices the same, product selection the same, how about the produce? My wife thinks the one we’re throwing taxes at will go out of business.

  • Schnuck’s, what I would consider a slightly high-end super-market chain based in St. Louis, has announced that its building two stores in my city, one in a nice neighborhood next to a popular private school, and the other next to the poorest neighborhoods in the city, thanks to some tax give-aways.

    I would put the typical Schnuck’s at about one notch above the typical Jewel. Interesting story about Schnuck’s. Most of the St. Louis grocery chains (Shnuck’s, Bettendorf’s, and Dierberg’s) were all started by the same guy.

    His original chain was Bettendorf’s. He sold that with a non-compete clause that barred him from the supermarket biz for five years. After the five years were up he started Schnuck’s. That was a roaring success, too, so he sold that chain with a non-compete clause, etc. When the non-compete clause had expired, he opened the higher end Dierberg’s. IMO Dierberg’s are about as good as a supermarket gets. They can go toe-to-toe with Whole Foods.

    While I’m on the subject of St. Louis supermarket chains, there’s still one, Straub’s that bills annually for house customers. Now that’s old-fashioned.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a Jewel that didn’t exhibit the same malaise as a K-mart. I think Consumer Reports usually rates them below average. I’m probably someone who tends to perceive quality by how bad the floor tile looks.

  • Icepick

    As most of you know, I move more frequently than a sane person should.

    My opinion on this has changed as I got older. I used to want to settle down, buy house and live there the rest of my life. These days I’d rather rent and move every four or five years. Moving is a great way to get rid of crap and clutter. This does not mean you won’t still have crap and clutter, but you will get rid of some of the more offensive pieces.

    Naturally, with this my inclination, I now own (at least half) of the house I grew up in, I’m living here, and my house is full of crap. The mitigating factors are that some of the crap I inherited, some of it is my sister’s crap that she hasn’t dragged out of here yet, and once she gets rid of HER crap I will have the space to go through all our stuff and decide what to keep and what to get rid of.

    Yes, this is a thread hi-jacking. Your comments or your life!

  • Icepick, how old is your daughter? Wait until she starts moving and pitches all her excess crap back to you.

  • Steve

    I worked in West Philly in the 70s and 80s. It was a real food desert. Coming from the Midwest I was shocked at the lack of supermarkets. I lived in South Philly so I had the Italian market. Going back for a conference it loomed lime there were more stores now.

    @Drew- The dog and grasshopper thing is quite the latest hereabouts.

    Steve

  • Icepick

    Inner-city is just a synonym for “poor”. Orlando, for example, has no inner-city. But poor we got!

    Reynold’s comments about produce quality strike true, at least partly. I do think there’s probably less demand for variety in poorer areas. (Alternately, people are growing their own collard greens, for example.) But his explanation for sending better quality stuff to better areas is soundly reasoned. (I remember a very similar example from an economics class explaining why one could get better Florida oranges in grocery in NYC than a grocery in Florida. Of course, back in the day we’d just go pick it off the trees, but that was before the frost line moved south, the citrus canker and all the damned development.)

    As it is, we live in one of those poor areas, and we drive many miles out of our way to shop in a better neighborhood’s grocery store. And it isn’t just about safety concerns, in fact it mostly isn’t about that at all.

  • The mitigating factors are that some of the crap I inherited, some of it is my sister’s crap that she hasn’t dragged out of here yet, and once she gets rid of HER crap I will have the space to go through all our stuff and decide what to keep and what to get rid of.

    You think you have problems? My dad, an only child, ended up inheriting his grandparents stuff from both sides. After my mom died and I had catalogued, boxed, and distributed what I could among my siblings, I’m still left with a basement full of four generations of my family’s stuff.

    My plan is distribute it piece by piece among my siblings’ children as they set up households of their own. We’ll see how that works out.

  • Icepick

    Not quite two. I suspect she’s going to travel light in life, though. She can already climb up pretty much any ladder and a good many of the other climbing surfaces at the playgrounds. (The only ones she can’t climb are ones that are just simply too widely spaced for her current body.) I suspect a life of adventure for her….

  • Inner-city is just a synonym for “poor”.

    Not the way I use it. Here in Chicago we’ve got poor suburbs, too. I don’t think of them as “inner city”. Basically, here in Chicago I’d reserve the term for the near South Side and the near West Side.

  • Icepick

    You think you have problems?

    Heh, not on that front. But if you want to compare families, you lose!

    Why not just sell the stuff ( the stuff without sentimental value) and distribute the money? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love cash!

  • Icepick

    Not the way I use it.

    Perhaps not, but when they’re talking about food deserts in the inner-city, they’re referring to Harlem, not the Upper East Side. (Or West Side, whichever is tonier. Hey, just because I live in Florida doesn’t mean I’m a native New Yorker!) They really just mean poor and apparently have trouble imagining poor suburbs.

  • Icepick

    I’m currently learning how to cook more than the basics, by which I mean more than breakfast. I’ve got my own method for making killer spaghetti sauce. The trick is that there is never enough oregano, so whenever I stir the sauce, or walk by it, or even just think about it, I add some more oregano. By this time next year I expect I’ll be starting with a large pot of oregano and will just add other ingredients as needed.

  • I currently need to go do some cleaning before tomorrow’s crawfish boil.

  • michael reynolds

    Other than it’s good to be rich I don’t know what the actionable is on this. Mandating that all stores carry radicchio?

    Liberal knee jerking . . . must . . .deliver. . .salad. . . to poor! Also Chardonnay!

    Nah, there’s nothing to be done, really. It’s logical business practice. Even the issue of more aged-out products like meat — the poor aren’t buying a whole week’s worth of New York strips, they’re buying what they can afford for the next couple days.

    Also, it’s not a race/inner city thing IMO. I lived for a while in Johnson City, TN where, surprise, the Winn-Dixie did not carry exotic greens, gelatos, sushi, imported vinegars or artisanal chocolates. Did carry a lot of pork. I mean, a lot of pork.

  • Icepick

    Yeah but bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good.

  • michael reynolds

    I love bacon. Not a big fan of seeing the pig’s head eye-balling me while I buy it.

  • Michael, my 92-year-old mother-in-law flatly states that she likes canned green beans better than fresh ones. Nothing would change her mind. And canned asparagus better than fresh. It’s what she knew.

    She’s the one who went with a bank to group to Italy where they were served carpaccio. Everybody bitched that the beef wasn’t cooked.

  • Wow, go away for a few hours and miss a good thread.

    Nothing much to really add to the grocery store debate. Everything here is Publix with the occasional wal-mart market or super walmart/target. There are a few Aldi’s around. Publix is pretty good overall and all the stores seem about equal in quality to me, though like PD, I think I might get biased by the now “nice” the store is.

    I think Janis is right that groceries stock by demand. I’ve spent a lot of time in southern Utah, Arizona and western New Mexico and all the stores there have at least half an aisle just for lard.

    In our house I do almost all the grocery shopping and the majority of the cooking. With three kids including a toddler the menu isn’t as fun or daring as the days when it was just me and the wife. It doesn’t help that we’ve both passed that age were our metabolism is much slower so I rarely make my specialty (cheesecake) anymore.

    Michael,

    I love bacon too. I plan on making this at some point this summer.

  • I’d like to know the basket the writers are using to evaluate their findings. Hoe much food snobbery is involved? I’ve become one myself.

  • jan

    test

  • well, what else is new?

    The Amazing Even Alarming Ease .. . of creating a crisis in order to solve it with Amazing Even Alarming Ease of imposing harsh, UNconstitutional laws and restrictions to keep us from enjoying the fruits of our labor and our basic freedoms and liberties.

    Got eternal vigilence?

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