To Bee Honest…
“Food desert” you may have heard this phrase before or maybe not. A food desert is a place with limited or no fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. Or to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) words, a food desert is a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Conversations about food deserts in the US are quite common, at least within public health, however when I moved to Amsterdam I forgot about them. Actually in a recent conversation with a new acquaintance I highlighted the abundance of very healthy food options as one of my reasons for loving life in the Netherlands. However, I was very cautious to not say “Europe” and to continually emphasise that this was simply my experience based on almost 3 years of living in a specific social bubble in Amsterdam. Our personal experiences are never universal, something I always have to remind myself.
Well, I had reason to be grateful for those possibly annoying clarifications about a week after the conversation. I was visiting Belgium, specifically Brussels with a friend. I had booked our airbnb apartment , shout out to the awesomeness of airbnb, based on centrality of the location, reviews and price. I did not worry about the neighbourhood, because after all Belgium is my second home and my experience had been that it was safe and great! Well, we arrived in Brussels and found ourselves smack in the middle of an immigrant neighbourhood. It was such a salad bowl of a neighbourhood, on one street you had buildings with arabic script that sold halal meat and had a zillion hookah lounges. Then we walked past a traffic light and found ourselves facing rows and rows of African grocery stores and hair shops. Slight digression, these shops sold UBE! See below for pictorial evidence. If you don’t know what I am yammering on about, ube is considered (at least by me ) to be a part of the pear family and is often eaten boiled or roasted with corn. I have never found ube outside of Nigeira and this is one food item I desperately miss, because it’s seasonal and I am rarely in Nigeria at the right time.
After our multicultural journey and ube induced euphoria, we ended up at the apartment which was great. I did not think much about the neighbourhood until the next morning. I am big on breakfast or to be more specific on my coffee, coconut yoghurt and fruits for breakfast. Walking past all the grocery shops the previous day I had gotten very excited at the thought of fruits and veggies at my doorstep! I was going to have to an amazing breakfast. Famous last words. I left my airbnb and walked about 45 minutes in three different directions searching for fruits and breakfast items. There were yams, cassava, peppers, onions, unripe bananas and plantains and indian hair but an absolute dearth of apples, nectarines, eggs, tomatoes, yoghurt, milk, etc. Items that in my neighbourhood in Amsterdam and truly most of my European travels had been readily available around the corner. Little cafes or restaurants where one could sit and have healthy or even unhealthy breakfast options were non-existent. Corner bars had people drinking beers by 9am, no coffees or teas visible anywhere. I was dumbfounded and saddened.
After getting over my initial shock I realised there was more happening than my lack of breakfast. There were so many questions to be asked. What politics and policies led to these segregated neighbourhoods; what were the cultural practices of the residents related to food choices, where there specific challenges of being an immigrant or first generation citizen that influenced the available food options? As a public health nerd I was most concerned by the inequalities that led to these food deserts and the disparities in health outcomes that these deserts would in the long run contribute to. Yes, I was upset at being deprived of an easy breakfast for a couple of days but I knew it would be back to business as usual in a couple of days. The residents of these neighbourhoods did not have the luxury of escaping after a couple of days. What health challenges would people who were born, raised or living in these neighbourhoods face as a result of limited food choices? How would their limited choices shape their current and future eating habits? These are important questions considering that some of the key health challenges of the current century are diet and lifestyle related. Food has become more than a source of sustenance it’s also a weapon.
Thinking beyond the many challenges of the food desert, this experience will stay with me mainly for its lesson about generalisations and privilege. I am so often unaware of what a privileged existence I live, and tend to romanticise my current continent. “Europe” does not possess an abundance of anything, including fruits, vegetables and healthy food options. No continent or country has equal opportunities for all and it is unfortunately very easy for me to forget that there are significant disparities everywhere, especially when they aren’t evident in my daily life.
Yes, I started off whining about coffee and fruits but what beautiful winding roads our thoughts lead us through.