Toronto’s latest public-health fixation, this time on so-called “food swamps,” serves as a reminder that we are unlikely to realize the goal of creating a healthier population until we respect the autonomy of the individuals about whose health we’re so gallantly fretting.
Just as the concept of “food deserts” — geographical areas where healthy food options are few and far between — led to calls for municipal bans on fast food outlets (see Los Angeles circa 2008), the idea of “food swamps” — areas with too many unhealthy food options — will likely give birth to calls for government intervention. There will be more suggestions like the one from Debbie Fields, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, who, according to the Toronto Star, “would like to see Toronto adopt a rule that when new housing is built there has to be access to healthy food within walking distance.”
According to Fields, “if we want people to eat fresh produce, it has to be where we live.” Yet, the fact is that in most parts of the city, healthy food options already exist within walking distance — even in poorer neighbourhoods. Without grounds to complain about food deserts, Toronto Public Health has moved on to the concept of the food swamp — an area with more convenience stores than supermarkets; i.e., four condensed tomato soup cans for every fresh tomato.
The difference is a significant one, which we shouldn’t overlook. The food swamp is a place in which someone who wants to go out and buy fresh and healthy foods can do so — even without a car or a taxi. It’s just that she may pass a McDonald’s or two on her way, making the issue not so much one of access, as one of strength of will.
Let’s assume that being surrounded by corner stores makes it harder to eat healthy, even if there’s a fresh fish store thrown in there, too. The trouble is, even if we look at Toronto through the “food swamp” lens, the facts simply don’t fit the popular narrative of low-income neighbourhoods being stuck in the nutritional weeds. According to Toronto Public Health’s food map of the city, the Star says, “Food swamps are found in both high and lower income neighbourhoods throughout the city, and there was no significant correlation between a neighbourhood’s income and its score in terms of healthier food access.”
By now, you may see where all this is heading: to the extent Torontonians are eating unhealthily, the reason seems to be that they are choosing to do so. This means that if we want people to eat healthier, treating them as rational grown-ups and giving them encouragement and facts is probably going to be far more effective than elaborate zoning plans to engineer equal kale distribution. What we’re really talking about here is changing behaviour, which is never easy to do. But to the extent changing behaviour is possible, it requires the buy-in and motivation of the person whose behaviour we’re talking about. And that’s not something that can be legislated or mapped.
I can’t wrap this column up without a quick word on “healthy” and “fresh” foods, which seem to have taken on an almost moral dimension in the public health literature. While it’s true that a carrot is healthier than a Snickers bar, nutrition is not an all or nothing thing. The person who eats only carrots is far less healthy than the person who eats balanced meals that are occasionally crowned off with a Snickers bar. “Processed” foods are often unhealthy — yet a bag of frozen broccoli may actually pack more nutrients than the fresh stuff because it’s been packaged so close to being harvested. It also has the benefit of a smaller price tag and the ability to be used over many weeks without going bad.
“Think about it,” said Fields. “If you have only two or three dollars in your pocket and all you can see is packaged dead food what choice do you have?” The answer may be that you have more choice than you think — and that teaching people about that choice, rather than feeding them dramatic overgeneralizations about “packaged dead” food is the healthiest thing food advocates can do.
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