21 February 2010

An Apple A Day

At lunchtime in 1985 on my first day as a housing counselor for Neighborhood Housing Services of Patterson Park, I walked into the neighborhood's only "food" store and promptly learned from what my middle-class existence had heretofore shielded me. Amazed at finding little of true nutritional value, I suggested to the owner he might add bananas and oranges to his offerings. Wouldn't sell, he said.

That moment shocked me into consciousness of some basics I'd thoroughly taken for granted. As a child, I never left for school without a proper breakfast and a lunch bag containing a fruit dessert and my family gathered around the dinner table every night for home-cooked meals (granting me a firm perspective that fragmented supper schedules are the root of so much that's rotten - but that's for another day). Up until then, it never occurred to me that some families ate differently or that it took time, money, and relative proximity to nutritious food to eat well.

For the past 10+ years living on a Bolton Hill pathway for K-8 kids coming and going from Reservoir Hill - my first four serving as an after-school mentor - the sidewalk detritus serves as a stark reminder that despite two supermarkets within walking distance, some families may not be able to afford healthy food, may be too busy to provide it, or perhaps may not be sufficiently aware of its vital role in shaping, literally and very much otherwise, successful students. As a proud graduate of Baltimore City public schools and a life-long city resident, it pains me to see how food, poorly chosen, impacts learning and the lives of my young friends and their families. And what of folks with no grocery stores nearby and inadequate transportation options?

The unprecedented interest in nutrition's link to entrenched health problems confirms that as a society we've finally acknowledged the need to improve what and how we eat, that it's not an elitist ideal, that access to good food is a basic right, and that it transcends politics. Thank you, Michelle Obama, for bringing it down to the level of family responsibility. Food really is love and it really isn't junk food, per se, making our kids fat (and jacking them up on sugar and impairing their concentration) - having it more readily available than an after-school apple is.

But no doubt, in certain Baltimore neighborhoods, there may be that degree of difficulty in acquiring said apple. And our palates are wired, we're told, to want sugar, salt, and fat. The number of my niece's suburban classmates prescribed Adderall startled me until I factored in all the junk food with additives linked to ADHD. Doesn't matter if it's us or our kids who should unhand some of this stuff - it's tough and it's tough love. We'll get there, and BTW, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is already several years into working with corner groceries to carry those oranges and bananas.